Review: In ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline,’ nihilism is optimism

Inspired by the 2021 nonfiction manifesto of the same name, the film plays out like a heist drama

click to enlarge Ariela Barer in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. - Neon
Ariela Barer in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Even before I saw this movie, I thought it had a good chance of being the film of the year. Of the decade, even. I wondered if this might even feel like the first movie of the 21st century, zeitgeist-wise. Like, in 2099, when we start looking back at what the past hundred years had been about, the ideas that had shaped it, will historians and culture-watchers point to this movie and say, “This is where things really kicked into gear?”

I think this is entirely plausible. I also hate that it requires a shit-ton of optimism to even suggest that. And now that I’ve seen the movie, I believe my pre-screening suppositions remain credible.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It’s an incendiary title for an incendiary film. It’s a little bit like a horror flick, in that it’s about a varied group of young people who get together and find themselves in a dangerous situation in which they might be killed. The situation is both of their making and not of their making. The nice green planet they’re living on, with its temperate climate and drinkable water and breathable atmosphere, is being trashed beyond all recognition by people older and more powerful than they are. So they decide to express their displeasure with their environmental inheritance being destroyed in the only way left to them: by fucking shit up, violently.

The planet is Earth, of course, in the here and now. I don’t mean to suggest that the film pretends to be science fiction or that it withholds this information. It doesn’t. It starts off feeling like a low-key drama about disaffected young people the likes of which we’ve seen plenty before, only not with the stakes this high. I am trying to impart to my global-warming-denying, or just plain inexcusably fucking complacent, Gen X peers and those older than us that, in many ways that really matter, we are bequeathing to future generations — including those already alive, like the characters in this movie — a planet that is already intrinsically alien to human life as it has existed since we evolved into something like our current form.

This was inspired by the 2021 book of the same name by Andreas Malm, which is not a novel but a nonfiction manifesto about how the time for nice gentle placid protest has passed, and now it’s time to violently let the fossil-fuel industry know that their vampire-capitalist bullshit is no longer welcome. So all the characters here are invented for the film, played by a deliciously diverse array of fab young actors: Ariela Barer (who also co-wrote the script), Forrest Goodluck; Jayme Lawson, Sasha Lane, Marcus Scribner. Beautifully, not a lot of infodumping is going on in this movie — we are mostly left to figure it out — but we can see that for the most part, these are young people from nonwhite backgrounds, some seemingly indigenous, who have not been served well by the supposed American dream. (The oil pipeline they are planning to blow up is in Texas.) There’s one character, a rancher played by Jake Weary, who is white, about whom it might be easy to assume that he is a Republican — and maybe he is! though nothing is mentioned on this matter that I can recall — but even he is unhappy with the oil company that wants to despoil his land with the pipeline These Kids Today are working together to blow up.

So, like, when carbon crimes hit home, there is little difference between left and right. And carbon crimes are hitting home everywhere now.

Pipeline is a heist drama, and an incredibly tense and intense one. But this is a movie that transcends mere entertainment, even while it is incredibly entertaining. It is about young people who are enormously desperate, and who have nothing to lose, because their elders have specifically engineered a cultural and physical environment that makes them desperate and that has left them no other options. We don’t have time for divestment, one kid says. We need to show how vulnerable the oil industry is, another kid says.

I say “kid,” but only because I’m old and they’re young. They are adults who fully comprehend the future they are facing. This is a movie about how nihilism is optimism. Are they gonna blow themselves up in the process of manufacturing their own improvised explosives, one kid wonders? “I don’t really care,” another says with a resigned shrug. They have no other choice. Nihilism is optimism now.

Film Details

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About The Author

MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson launched her popular and respected in 1997, making it one of the longest-running film-criticism sites online. Her reviews have appeared a variety of US alt-weekly newspapers. Other credits: Indiewire, PBS’s Independent Lens blog, Film Threat, She is an executive...
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