It’s a clichÃ© at this point to quote American student leader and activist Mario Savio’s 1964 speech, popularly known as ‘Bodies Upon the Gears’, but in the case of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the new eco-thriller based on Swedish author and professor of human ecology Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name, it just fits so perfectly that I really don’t see any other way:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
Malm’s book was a radical work of non-fiction that argued that sabotage and other forms of direct action were the only logical reactions to climate change. It posited that strategic nonviolence and other similar strategies were misguided. With the worst effects of climate change already starting to be felt, and the nations and capitalist institutions that have caused it not just refraining from taking remedial action but continuing along the same destructive path, the book made the case that targeting the physical infrastructure of the carbon industry was the only recourse left.
Born out of despair yet fuelled by optimism, Pipeline’s central message remains identical in the film version, adapted by director Daniel Goldhaber (2018’s Cam), who co-wrote the story with screenwriter Jordan Sjol (Cam) and Ariela Barer. Barer also plays Xochitl here, the leader of the group of activists who execute a plan to destroy sections of an oil pipeline in West Texas with the hopes of showing other activists that it is possible, thus starting a movement that eventually forces carbon companies to consider their investments no longer sound.
Knowing my own views, I was aware that I would find it hard to be objective while watching Pipeline. Similarly to Athena, I was primed to be sympathetic to the project based purely on its subject matter and point of view. With creative works that tackle the really important issues with the correct attitude, I’m often inclined to take the position, ‘Screw objectivity, it’s overrated anyway’, yet I’m pleased to say that How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t succeed just because of its politics. What Goldhaber and crew have crafted here isn’t just a timely snapshot of where we stand as a species, but a finely tuned, breathlessly entertaining thriller, structured like a classic heist movie, that moves at such a brisk pace that it had me convinced it came in at under ninety minutes in length, instead of the hour and forty-three minutes that it actually came to. Neither moments of tragedy nor triumph are given much fanfare or typical Hollywood over-exposure here. This is a film on a mission and with a level of focus that doesn’t allow for any indulgences.
I’m ambivalent about the use of the term ‘eco-thriller’ and similar such constructions, as it feels like the beginning of the commodification and packaging of issues that absolutely should remain live, raw, and untouched by capitalism’s neutering hand. Going into the film, I was worried that it would muddy its thesis or pull its punches by watering down Malm’s original argument. I needn’t have been. Pipeline is clear-eyed in its diagnosis of the catastrophic situation we find ourselves in, as well as—crucially—its identification of those who are responsible for that situation, and those who are emphatically not. As the planet’s situation worsens, expect more mainstream films to build on what How to Blow Up a Pipeline and things like the sublime First Reformed and excellent Utama have started.
This is a movie that has people at its heart. The cold, cruel machinery of capitalism has already extinguished countless lives. It’s set to take far more in the near future, and Pipeline makes a case that hope remains so long as humanity takes a stand against the machine. I was affected deeply by the story, and touched by each and every one (well, almost) of the characters taking part in what they identified as the only possible course left to take. Their motivations are laid out in an effective flashback format that serves to heighten the stakes while also granting brief moments of respite from the relentless march of the main plot strand—the rhythm and interplay of the two work well. Characters here talk like human beings too, not creations of a script, and while another project might have fleshed them out more with additional dialogue scenes or longer flashbacks, Pipeline sees no need. To me, it succeeds far more than not with its gambit.
I left the cinema needing to see the film again. The cinematography by Tehillah De Castro (feature debut!) is visceral and compelling, and the score by Gavin Brivik (Cam) is pitch-perfect, enhancing the story’s beats every step of the way. The young cast do uniformly good work, translating the urgency of the film’s message with empathy and relatability. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is compulsive viewing. The fact that it needs to exist is hugely depressing, but the film understands that, and, in response, it says, ‘Okay, but there’s no time to mourn what was; this is how we have to deal with what we have now.’