Global Mechanic/ Bruce Alcock

Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography Review: The Element that Got Snookered

Succession star voices carbon in this playful approach to eco docs

5 mins read

Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography
(Canada/Australia, 90 min.)
Dir. Niobe Thompson & Daniella Ortega

“We aren’t at war with carbon. We are carbon, and carbon is in almost everything around us.”—Niobe Thompson

“We were not framing this production as a ‘climate change film’. This is a film about an element, about its role in shaping the natural and man-made world. There’s a clear focus on the science–chemistry, physics, biology, materials and environmental science”—Sonya Pemberton, executive producer

How do you make an ecological film without turning off people with statements of doom and gloom? Veteran Canadian documentarian Niobe Thompson has combined forces with another creative, Australian filmmaker Daniella Ortega, to make a film that’s truly special, Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography. It was Ortega who came up with the idea of personalizing carbon, making the film into something far different from your standard science or eco-doc. As an Australian-Canadian coproduction with additional money from Europe’s ARTE, it’s natural that the playful seductive voice of Carbon—yes, she has a personality and is definitely a woman—is Aussie Sarah Snook, the now world-famous female lead Siobhan “Shiv” Roy in HBO’s Succession.

The concept of the film is quite novel. Carbon has developed a bad rep: all we ever hear about is carbon tax, carbon footprint, carbon credits—there seems to be a war on the element. Ortega as writer and Snook as character actor are naturally aggrieved at the misrepresentation of an element, which does as much good as harm, creating polymers and wrapping the atmosphere in its embrace. While the voice and personality of Carbon mounts her case that she has been villainized, a wide range of scientists tell us about the harm and good created by the element.

Thompson and Ortega have selected experts who are fine performers—passionate, articulate and at least reasonably good looking. (Hey, they’re scientists!) Among them are the world-famous Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist) and a crew consisting of, in part, Tamara Davis (astrophysicist), Dr. Robert Hazen (geologist), Dr. Phil de Luna (carbon capture scientist), Dr. Joelle Gergis (climate scientist), Dr. Katey Walter Anthony (Arctic aquatic ecologist), Will Steffen (climate scientist), Katherine Hayhoe (climate scientist), Ian Miller (historian), and Dr. Carin Bondar (biologist). Rest assured, there are others.

Global Mechanic/ Bruce Alcock

Just as important to the film as the recruitment of all of those distinguished experts is the artistic presence of animator Bruce Alcock. The personality of Carbon wouldn’t be complete without Alcock’s creation of the protean figure of the element. The film as a whole wouldn’t be as gorgeous and wondrous as it is if Thompson hadn’t brought the brilliant animator on board. Throughout Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography, the visuals on the screen are fantastic—literally redolent of wonder—as Alcock’s fully imaginative flights of fancy transport the viewer while listening to the transformational—or warning—words of the scientists.

Ortega and Thompson make their points far more clearly in the last third of the film as environmental warnings are expressed by the scientists. Carbon’s voice becomes plaintive as she argues her relative blamelessness in a global tragedy, which is being caused by humans, not by “her.”

Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography is a truly imaginative rethinking of what we expect in an ecological, or science, doc. This critic’s major reservation is in the persona of Carbon and the obvious coaching (by the filmmakers) of the scientists to speak of the element as “her.” Turning Carbon into a woman is playful and imaginative but it can actually annoy and anger viewers, particularly women. Do we really want to think of Carbon as a flirtatious and flighty female? In such a wonderfully imaginative film, have Ortega and Thompson gone too far with their concept of Carbon?

Sadly, that is likely the case. Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography is a truly artistic doc with its heart in the right place. It may not quite have worked out as well as it might but it’s certainly a film worth seeing.


Carbon—The Unauthorized Biography screens Feb. 28 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and premieres in a broadcast edit on CBC March 4.

Trailer (embed disabled)

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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