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A 'Plastic Planet,' In Thrall To A Deadly Addiction

As Austrian filmmaker Werner Boote traveled the world to make Plastic Planet, he asked people to show off just how many plastic items were in their homes. Modest-sized dwellings in Japan, Austria and the U.S. yielded huge caches of the stuff. So did a small shanty in India.

Turns out it really is a plastic planet, even though products made of synthetic polymers have been commercially marketed for only about 100 years. (Bakelite dates to 1907.) Plastic blows in the wind, bobs in the ocean and -- perhaps most alarmingly -- percolates through the human reproductive system.

Boote has a personal connection to the problem. When the easygoing writer-director was a child, his grandfather worked for a plastics company. So Boote frames his documentary as a personal quest to learn some of the things his grandpa couldn't have known about the lightweight, durable, miraculously cheap material. Although he does attempt a trade-fair confrontation with the president of PlasticsEurope, Boote insists he's no Michael Moore. Most of the time, he presents himself as bemused and curious, whether looking to film the manufacture of plastic -- no one will oblige him, not even a very informal-looking Chinese company -- or having his blood drawn to learn just how much synthetic material it contains.

Risking a jumbo carbon footprint, Boote and his crew traveled Europe, Asia, the U.S. and North Africa. In Morocco, a stuntman shows a bag-strewn stretch of desert that has to be cleaned up every time a movie crew shoots there. In Japan, Boote joins the annual cleanup of beaches on a designated "nature island." Near Venice, the filmmaker meets the daughter of a whistle-blower who denounced a plastics plant where 170 workers died. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Hawaii, a floating research crew shows off a sample of seawater that's packed with plastic smithereens.

Plastic offers dozens of storylines, though not all of them pan out as you might expect. In Beverly Hills, Boote tries to get a well-tooled 56-year-old woman to denounce her breast implants, but she's protective of them. A visit to a guy who "plasticizes" human corpses for medical display provides vivid images but not much insight. The director also stages a few conversations in dramatic locations that prove more distracting than illuminating.

To supplement its real-world images, Plastic Planet uses Japanese-style animated segments and excerpts from archival pro-plastic films and commercials. (The latter are so alien to contemporary sensibilities that they might as well be cartoons, too.) But some findings are simply asserted: Boote apparently couldn't find an effective (or tasteful) way to illustrate reports that human sperm production has declined 53 percent over the past 50 years.

From a plastic-food store in Tokyo to a "bioplastic" maker in Milan to a huge garbage dump in Calcutta, Boote hops locations. He does much the same with topics, making Plastic Planet more of an introductory survey than a sustained argument. But then we'll have plenty of time to talk about the subject: As the film notes, even if we stopped using PBA, PVC and the rest tomorrow, the plastic that exists today will endure for at least 500 years.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.