Burn Up review – simplistic, apocalyptic, trashy, but I like it

Environmental thriller. There’s two words you don’t often see next to each other. But that’s exactly how the BBC is describing its new mini series Burn Up:

This topical thriller sees oil company executives, environmental activists and politicians collide in the battle between economic success and ecological responsibility.

I have just finished watching the first part (see below for 2nd part update), and I was moderately impressed. Environmental problems, generally, are not fast, exciting and sexy; they’re slow, boring and technical. To make something like climate change fit into the “thriller” format you either have to exaggerate it ridiculously (like The Day After Tomorrow) or weave in the Big Bad Oil Company theme. Burn Up does a little of the first and a lot of the second.

Brad Whitford, who was my favourite character Josh in my favourite show The West Wing, takes care of much of the corporate skulduggery single-handedly, in a very insidious role. Apart from Whitford, the acting, plot, and dialogue are all fairly pedestrian, but what do you expect form a made-for-TV mini series? The love story sub-plot, in particular, made my eyes roll so far it hurt.

Overall, a moderately compelling and engaging show, and enjoyable enough. I just wish they had resisted the temptation to run the theme “the fate of civilisation is in your hands, you just have to have the courage to do the right thing”. Why do they have to boil everything down to such a simplistic good vs evil, utopia vs apocalypse theme? The complexities of reality are far more interesting. Or maybe that’s just me.

Update (Part 2): The second part built on the themes and style of the first. Whitford again shone through. Both the character he played and his acting showed real depth, and just kept growing as the show reached its climate. Not a masterpiece by any means, but ultimately it worked. It was gripping, and I cared.

The most interesting thing for me was the shift in themes in the second part of Burn Up. While the first part was all about global warming (or should I say “climate change”?) and tipping points, the second part left the science alone and moved on to the international politics of a climate change agreement (Kyoto 2) and peak oil.

The treatment of the climate change politics was (sadly but understandably) pretty woeful. Trying to dramatise something so complex and convoluted as a subplot within a mini-series was a big mistake. What we ended up with was a large number of paper cut-out stereotypes played by some fairly average actors giving laughably bad performances.

But then (ironically) along comes peak oil to save the show – and the world. This plot element lacked a full explanation, but at least it worked dramatically, helping to build some real tension. Our intrepid hero gets hold of some secret geological data that shows that oil is running out – will he release it, ending Big Oil’s terrible hegemony, whilst simultaneously throwing the world economy into ruins? It’s the first time the show moves away from the simplistic good vs evil dichotomy and starts giving us some dilemmas and shades of grey.

But surely that peak oil stuff is all guff, right? That couldn’t happen in real life… could it?

Well, I think it can. Specifically on 12 November 2008. I’ll explain why in the next post – click here to read it.

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One Response to “Burn Up review – simplistic, apocalyptic, trashy, but I like it”

  1. Peak oil - mark it in your diary « Everything is changing Says:

    […] the apocalyptic scenario portrayed in the BBC mini-series Burn Up is not totally out of this world. Of course it was exaggerated for dramatic effect, but there is […]


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