Director Chris Smith has already broken down the American dream into its component parts in previous films such as American Movie and The Yes Men - but never like this. Filmed in a basement, with lighting that recalls an interrogation, one man, Michael Ruppert, talks for an hour and half about how not just the economy is collapsing, but society as a whole. The footage of Ruppert is sparingly interrupted by bold white on black titles and occasionally covered by archival footage. The result is utterly transfixing, one of the most terrifying, hilarious, moving, and thrilling documentaries ever made.
Ruppert starts off pleasantly enough, talking about his time as a police officer, following down corruption in the government as a journalist, and his theories on the current global economic collapse. He ties everything back to our dependence on oil, and quotes facts on how oil doesn't just affect our cars; it's in everything we use, everything we do, every second of the day. It comes off as a slightly less drawling An Inconvenient Truth for the first half of the movie, but with a distinct undercurrent of menace.
As Ruppert keeps talking, we learn that this undercurrent is there for a good reason: Every single fear we have about our government, about them lying to us, and about the economy not recovering? It's all true, according to Ruppert. Every last bit of it. He ties the melting of the polar ice caps, the Iraq War, even the shortage of goods in your local supermarket into the larger truth that we are about to suffer an extinction-level event, the likes of which the people of Earth have never seen. And it's not just America; the entire world, according to Ruppert, is about to be reshaped into something entirely new. But first? As much as one hundred years of absolute global apocalypse.
Smith edits the documentary to address many of the questions we might have, so that although Ruppert is always front and center, a subtle dialogue begins to emerge between viewer and subject. 'But the economy is bouncing slowly back up,' you say. Ruppert has an answer for that, based on historical fact. 'You sound like a conspiracy theorist,' you say. Ruppert has a completely plausible answer for that, too. And as he knocks away your innate rejections to his philosophy, your fear level starts to rise.
The scariest part -- and perhaps what distinguishes Collapse from so many other alarmist documentaries of recent vintage -- is that Ruppert doesn't seem to have any easy answers to the question, 'How do we fix this?' He swears that there is nothing you can do to prevent the collapse; you can only ride it out.
It would have been easy for Collapse to be just another bummer documentary about the world going to hell, but Didier Leplae and Joe Wong's brooding, omnipresent score lend it a real air of suspense. And Ruppert himself makes for a magnetic, tragic, almost Hitchcockian hero -- a man thrust into a situation far bigger than himself.
If anything knocks this down a half a star, it's that, like anything with one viewpoint, it could be mere propaganda. Unless you actually know the facts going in, there's no way to know whether what Ruppert says is right or wrong. So why doesn't he debate anyone in the movie? Don't worry: he has an answer for that, too.