“We Are As Gods” is not one of the better films of this year, but it is one of the most relevant, and it resists the mistakes that many other documentaries commit. For one, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s biopic is not a hagiography of Stewart Brand — in probing the curiosities of the environmentalist, cyberneticist and Ken Kesey acolyte, it reveals what he has overlooked.
After grand introductions of Brand as a “Great American” in the vein of P. T. Barnum, the “intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture” and “da Vinci of cyberculture,” the film largely attributes his successes to an eerie ability to “always be in the right place at the right time.” The environmental, genetic and technological ideas attributed to Brand are not originated but articulated by him with an evangelical naivete.
The film’s title borrows a line from the statement of purpose of Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog:” “We are as Gods and might as well get good at it.” The Catalog was a hippie DIY magazine-manual-product bulletin as multi-hyphenate as its maker. It was published regularly between 1968 and 1972, with a final issue released in 1998. The film’s sheer variety of cameos attests to the Catalog’s sphere of influence. Features include Peter Coyote, Brian Eno (who scored the film), Steve Jobs (who described the Catalog as “Google in paperback form”) and a slew of notable paleo-something-or-other-ologists.
Woe to those who expect a 94-minute exposé of Brand’s childhood. To be sure, it’s there; the film includes the obligatory delightful archival footage of a cherubic young Brand pecked by geese, befriending rodents and pratfalling in fields. However, this Brand documentary is structured much like his Catalog. Most of the film comprises the episodic attempts of an octogenarian Brand to revive extinct and ecologically beneficial species such as the woolly mammoth by editing their genes — extracted from remaining DNA — onto similar species.
Anyone who pulls a bioengineered rabbit from a hat must expect nasty droppings. This rightfully reverent film asks the questions Brand does not. What can be done is not necessarily what should be done, especially where the environment is concerned. After all, isn’t the human attempt to lord over nature as gods what brought about the current ecological crisis?
“We Are As Gods” shows well that Brand’s propensity to eschew the preconceived world for one of his own creation dates back to his involvement with Ken Kesey’s San Francisco crew in the ‘60s. Through Kesey’s Acid Test events, “thousands of hippies in the Bay Area discovered that there were thousands of hippies in the Bay Area,” but how were they to change the unsustainable behaviors of an apparently doomed civilization the way that LSD had changed theirs?
For Brand, changing humanity’s frame of reference was a matter of its yet unmade images. He held a one-man grassroots campaign for NASA to release the first image of the whole Earth; his homonymous catalog empowered millions of readers with a self-supporting idealism, which still endures in current startup culture; his advocacy for the use of computers as tools for independence and the revival of the mammoth genome reflect social movements in the form of hacktivism and environmentalism.
Brand’s naive moral neutrality on technology usage is as much his force as it is his hubris. His doubtlessness about the ends to which technologies can be put is a disturbing form of amnesia; after all, the father of the hydrogen bomb was also a geoengineer. Brand is not for preservation but modification. While this was anathema to other early environmentalists, many now share his stance on issues such as GMOs, nuclear power and de-extinction.
At its heart, the documentary questions what is more natural: a sky filled with pterodactyls or acid rain? It is not the responsibility of playing God which is dangerous, so much as the fact that this responsibility has no endpoint. Alvarado and Sussberg stress that effective environmentalism requires dynamic and continuous commitment on an unprecedented scale of space and time.
By moving humanity from the defense to the offense, Brand’s iteration of this commitment is both technologically empowering and morally untethered. At the end of the film, he revises his titular saying to read, “We are as nature,” and he wonders how human behavior can recreate, rather than engineer biological processes. His unasked question is telling: How should it?