Halfway into Fantastic Fungi, the new documentary from Louie Schwartzberg, you might begin to wonder if the film was paid for by our Mushroom Overlords, or perhaps funded by Big Fungus, so ardent is it in its selling of all the ways that mushrooms are truly amazing.
“When you sense the oneness, you are with us”, purrs Brie Larson as the collective voice of fungi of the world, in a mystical introduction that is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. This intermittent and overly poetic narration is somewhat off-putting, making one feel as though the mushrooms are always there, watching, waiting. It feels a little cultish. But intrusive narration aside, this is a film that pulls out all the stops in an effort to convince of the importance and potential of fungi, and how vital their existence is to our own.
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It’s right, of course. If there’s a downside to the film it’s that it tries to cram too much into its one hour and twenty minutes, ending up with a rather scattered focus and a strange mix of styles that might be better suited to a six-part television series. There’s Brie, telling us that she is the wisdom of a billion years. There’s animation; talking heads; science, both hard and soft; fungus nerds; an utterly stunning array of slow-motion and time-lapse photography; and – holding the whole thing together – mycologist Paul Stamets.
If that name sounds familiar it might be because Paul Stamets – named after the real-life American mycologist – is the character on Star Trek: Discovery who controls the ship’s spore drive. The film, unexpectedly, dives into the real Stamets’ background; lightly, but enough that if feels as if it is a profile of him as much as a nature documentary. Stamets is likeable and eloquent, with a creatively scientific mind. He comes across as surprisingly down to earth despite his passion for the subject.
Stamets is the human face of the mushroom world, part scientist, part salesman, part inspirational speaker. Saving old growth forests, he says, is a matter of national defence, as their mycelial networks may be home to shrooms that have the potential to protect against viruses and provide immunity – an important aspect of biosecurity, as well as food security when one looks at dying populations of bees.
He – along with scientists from several eminent US universities – also tells us how fungi has the potential to capture and store vast amounts of carbon (vital in the fight against climate chaos); to digest hazardous waste and pollutants; as biopesticides; to create compostable materials; to filter water. You’ll learn about the potential of mushrooms to produce substances that stimulate nerve regrowth, treat cancer, reduce anxiety, help with palliative care.
Much of this is presented in a rather anecdotal way, and focuses on potential rather than solid science, and in this way it feels rather like an extended entreaty for better environmental protection or a pitch for scientific funding. It certainly promotes the mushroom cause but the viewer is left wondering what, specifically, they are being sold. The movie’s website tries to be a little clearer, breaking it down into “7 significant pillars where mycelium greatly benefit our lives”, actions to take, and an invitation to “get connected”, all of which appear to be about making better decisions and creating a better world.
In the film you’ll learn that there are over 1.5 million species of fungus, and that more than twenty thousand of them produce mushrooms. What you won’t learn is anything about individual species of mushrooms; there is no Attenborough-style walk-through of habitat, growth and life-cycle, and this is something of a disappointment.
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But what Fantastic Fungi lacks in specifics it more than makes up for with visuals, and the cinematography is, without a doubt, the best part of this documentary. Image upon time-lapse image of mushrooms pushing through the soil, growing, expanding, in a delicious dance that captures their beauty and diversity. For this aspect alone it is worth watching, and more than once.
Fantastic Fungi is, overwhelmingly, about the possibilities presented by fungi. It is about beauty and connectedness, potential and hope. “We could be the community that heals the planet”, says one fungus enthusiast, drawn to the field by Paul Stamets and his work. The magic is not just beneath us – it’s right here.
Fantastic Fungi is in virtual UK Cinemas from 6th November and available on Apple TV, Amazon and Google Play from 9th November