Stewart Brand is one of the world’s most influential thinkers that not many people know of. He was an intricate founder of some of today’s most progressive movements, yet unlike others, he is not in it for the self-exposure. In fact, many might call him dangerously selfless. Brand, now 81, is most famously known for being the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, a magazine first published in the late 60s that was essentially what Google is today in paper format. He would go on to play a role in molding what would become modern environmentalism and pull some strings behind the “Hacker” movement in the mid-70s. The very same uprising that brought together Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple. Brand already possessing contemporary “God” like influence is using that exact power, perhaps a little too literally, in his current exploits: the de-extinction of the Mammoth.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it” is what Brand wrote in the first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968. Documentarians David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg fittingly lift that phrase as the title of their film on Brand, We Are As Gods. The two take viewers on a journey against time. Brand is one of the leading voices in today’s compact, but resilient, push for de-extinction. His partnership with refound geneticist George Church is taking the next big steps in ensuring the revival and ultimate long time survival of Mammoths. Why even bring back extinct species? Their answer is simple: they would serve as critical tools in the global arsenal to counter climate change. We Are As Gods dives into this wormhole of complexities, but Alvarado and Sussberg strive for an even more compelling agenda.
De-extinction is quite a controversial topic and a position that will frankly never win some people over. We Are As Gods, like any documentary, operates on a certain level of bias. This film ultimately sides with Brand, but in an impressive way does not force the audience to choose. Imploring viewers to side with bringing back the dead is more fit for a documentary on National Geographic. This film operates as an introspective call to action, informing the audience that de-extinction is not only a possibility – but a path walked by those who can be just as righteous as the opposition. As Brand tries to literally turn back time on a species, the directors turn back time on him in return. The key to understanding the future has more than often been found in the past.
We Are As Gods paints a compelling portrait of Brand’s life and career. Through the engaging use of archival material and interviews, viewers are treated to the most lucid lens into Brand’s psyche. His journey across the decades, from taking acid with influencer and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey to pushing the U.S. government in releasing the first complete photo of planet Earth, is utterly fascinating. By the end of the film, one will be able to understand and even empathize with Brand’s quest in de-extinction. This would not be the case if the documentary itself was not so scrutinizing as it is sympathetic to Brand.
One of the film’s greatest feats is creating space for Brand’s greatest critics. Any debate as complicated as de-extinction requires nuance. By highlighting that Brand is only human, filled with triumphs and faults, the directors give viewers an imaginative stand on the stage. The film invigorates the human consciousness to respond, thus compelling those watching to internally share their own philosophies. The directors rightfully do not let viewers off easy; one will definitely find themselves constantly challenging their own values. The bare portrayal of Brand’s legacy always navigates back to the sheer reality of it all. Even though Brand certainly carries influence, he is not impervious to criticism and accountability. We Are As Gods invites everyone to both agree and disagree, but enforces that there is no more important time to act but now.
The directors manage to capture divine like visuals and aesthetics worthy of Brand’s vision for de-extinction. The idea of bringing back Mammoths is too enticing, even to those who disagree with it. Alvarado and Sussberg somehow make the prospect feel even more tangible through the camera, giving the documentary a cinematic level that further highlights the consequences of the human race. Iconic English musician Brian Eno, and fellow Brand collaborator, lends his voice both through interviews and as the film’s composer. His electronic score greatly complements the film’s text and visual compositions. In some cases, it even bleeds information from the screen in waves of euphoria. As the credits roll, the music lingers in the mind as it ignites into a whole new world of possibilities.
We Are As Gods is a philosophical journey that justly finds its own spirituality. Morals and values will come into question, but what will be absolutely clear is the need for action. Alvarado and Sussberg’s documentary is not forcing anyone to be pro on reviving Mammoths. The film, and Brand, are greatly advocating for the preservation of tomorrow. Humanity’s role in the future is the most important; people have proven to ultimately decide the fate of living species and environments. Brand is trying to take that negative fact and flip it into a positive. Anyone else can do the same, whether through de-extinction or not. Brand would love to gain support, but just giving any damn about the conversation is the first step. We Are As Gods is a timely reminder that people have more power than they can sometimes carry. It is about time to decide what goodwill to use it for.
We Are As Gods was chosen to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival.
Follow writer and managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626