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THE BIG PICTURE

'Collapse' is the strangest doomsday film yet

November 10, 2009|Patrick Goldstein

America has a bad case of the doomsday jitters. You don't have to be a Glenn Beck follower to know that whenever things go wrong in this country, you can always find all the anger, bitterness and fear-mongering bubbling up and over into our popular culture.

With Wall Street fat cats still cashing in while the rest of the country suffers from double-digit unemployment, with partisan bickering at an all-time high and a war in Afghanistan threatening to suck up 40,000 more troops, the country is in a sour mood, full of nasty, dark suspicions about the future. It's as good an explanation as any for why Beck is the hottest guy on TV right now, trumpeting his fears of one-world government, assailing corrupt politicians and worrying that Barack Obama, with "his deep-seated hatred for white people," could be angling to subvert our constitutional government.

It's telling that Hollywood also has a batch of scary, post-apocalyptic films coming our way. Roland Emmerich's "2012" takes off this weekend, promising a vivid, special-effects-filled look at the Earth's possible demise. There are more bad vibes in the air. John Hillcoat's brooding adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" opens this month, offering a bleak view of a father and son attempting to survive in an ash-covered America. Denzel Washington returns, "Road Warrior" style, in January, starring in "The Book of Eli," another stark, days-end vision of the future.

But what is surely the strangest film about our doomsday fantasies arrives Friday. Called "Collapse," it features a spellbindingly weird one-man monologue by Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer and investigative journalist who believes that we are about to run out of oil, an event sure to plunge the world into a state of collapse. If you ever thought it was impossible to top Beck's over-the-top fantasies, listen to Ruppert who says that "what I see now is the end of a paradigm that is as cataclysmic as the asteroid event that killed almost all the life on Earth, and certainly the dinosaurs."

The film is directed by Chris Smith, who has made a number of documentaries about oddball characters pursuing impossible dreams -- his 1999 film "American Movie" chronicled the story of a hapless slacker trying to make a $3,000 homemade horror film. But what makes "Collapse" so sneakily compelling is that we have no inkling of what Smith thinks of his subject. Filmed with one camera over the course of two days in the basement of an abandoned meatpacking plant in downtown L.A., "Collapse" is a hermetically sealed package, open to whatever interpretation we might bring to it. It allows us the same freedom we have in watching Beck's show -- we can take it as gospel, be appalled by its wild, undocumented claims or simply watch bemused.

"I think there is something quintessentially American about Michael," says Smith, who financed the film himself, using the money he's made as a successful commercial director. "He comes out of the culture of the moment, in the same way that we foster all these high-flying entrepreneurs and self-help gurus. When you look at his upbringing, to have gone from being a police officer to someone who questions authority, it fits into a storyline that could only happen in this country."

"Collapse" opens in theaters in New York and L.A. while also debuting this weekend on the Film Buff video-on-demand channel. Smith admits he has "very conflicted feelings" about Ruppert, who also happens to be the son of a CIA operative. "A lot of what he says is incredibly thought-provoking, with lots of historical support, but there are things that you'd probably get a lot of criticism for believing," he says.

I got hooked on "Collapse" for much the same reason that millions of viewers have fallen for Beck. Every time I'd start to think Ruppert was a deluded crackpot, he'd reel me back in, grabbing me by the throat with a burst of seemingly persuasive analysis. He poses his oil-collapse scenario in simple, hard-to-refute logic. "Saudi Arabia has 25% of the oil reserves on the planet," he explains in a soothing, almost hypnotic voice. "Why, if Saudi Arabia has all these untapped reserves on shore, are they moving heavily into offshore drilling? If it's 5, 10 or 15 times more expensive to drill offshore than land, doesn't that tell you that Saudi Arabia knows that they've no more oil to find?"

To say that Ruppert is Beck's psychic twin would be an understatement. Beck comes from the right and Ruppert seems to live on the left -- he believes, for example, that we invaded Iraq for its oil reserves, arguing that we have no intention of ever leaving the country since "we built an embassy compound in Baghdad that's bigger than Vatican City." But both men transcend politics, since no amount of partisan posturing could justify their gloomy certainty about the future.

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