Time-lapse pioneer Louie Schwartzberg introduces those who study the vast, colorful variety of fungi that cover (and lurk within) the planet.
Devoted to deepening our appreciation of the vast diversity of fungi that may own this planet more than humans can claim to, Louie Schwartzberg’s Fantastic Fungi is about much more than penicillin, rotting sandwiches in the fridge and your college roommate’s illicit hallucinogens. Stuffed with cinematic eye candy of which the director’s famed time-lapse sequences are only one part, it’s more dazzling than comprehensive, and for some will become exhausting well before its quick running time is over. But it should play well on home video platforms, one more entry into the naturalist category so well suited to high-def televisions.
Schwartzberg has been making time-lapse films for decades, directing a slew of nature pics and contributing glossy stock footage to Hollywood blockbusters. So it’s no surprise that his work here grabs our attention easily: We watch mushrooms of every shape and size bulge from the soil and mature in seconds; see tendrils creep and recede. The squeamish will endure only a scene or two in which molds break down a once-living mammal.
But old-school photographic techniques are only part of the attraction. As researchers describe the workings of vast underground networks of mycelium, the filmmakers offer CG that is just as polished as the time-lapse, and more colorful. It’s spookily beautiful, even, especially when envisioning what lies unseen beneath old-growth forests.
Our guide for much of the film is Paul Stamets, a largely self-taught enthusiast who has made discoveries to rival those of professional mycologists — and who turned his hobby into quite a business. Stamets’ enthusiasm is contagious; alongside more familiar interviewees like Michael Pollan and food journalist Eugenia Bone, he discusses many ways different species of fungus have built the world we know and might help solve problems in unexpected ways. Stamets, for instance, has used fungal extracts to help bees survive the mysterious illness killing colonies around the world; on the other side of the spectrum, he has used extracts to make novel pesticides to kill nests of termites. (Stamets also inspired a character on the most recent Star Trek spinoff, who uses extraterrestrial spores as a sort of replacement for his ship’s warp drive.)
A long section of the doc explores the better known (if still under-examined) ability of some mushrooms to alter human perception. We learn of the “stoned ape” hypothesis, which suggests magic mushrooms may have triggered the transition in which Homo erectus produced Homo sapiens. But here and now, we talk to scientists exploring psilocybin’s use as a legitimate treatment for various conditions. (Conditions including, but not limited to, the feeling that the world around you is mostly one gigantic, hate-filled bummer.)
If the movie arguably leans too heavily on its ooh-ahh visuals, it certainly could do without most of Mark Monroe’s scripted narration, which pops up on occasion to distract us with vaguely grand pronouncements about our fungal friends. Delivered with rehearsed wonder, these speeches sound exactly like those TV ads in which megabanks remind us of the good they do in impoverished communities and petrochemical companies swear they’re fixing the world, not poisoning it. If they don’t know going in, most viewers will be surprised in the credits to learn this is the voice of Brie Larson. Presumably, Larson wanted to lend her star power to a worthy promotion of scientific research; but in this case, the scientists were doing fine all by themselves.
Production company: Moving Art
Director: Louie Schwartzberg
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Lyn Davis Lear, Louie Schwartzberg, Elease Lui Stemp
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Margaret Bear, Elizabeth Parker
Editors: Kevin Klauber, Annie Wilkes
Composer: Adam Peters