Scientific documentary sings the praises of our fungal friends
Fantastic Fungi (2019)
Directed by Louis Schwartzberg
Consider the humble mushroom. Go ahead. I’ll wait. …
That’s more or less the premise behind Fantastic Fungi, a hagiographic documentary aimed at elevating the status of “spores, molds and fungus” (to steal a line from Dr. Egon Spengler, noted Ghostbusters scientist). Don’t think that mushrooms are the greatest thing on planet Earth? Well, you soon will.
Fantastic Fungi begins with a flowery voiceover narration (courtesy of Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson). Speaking as the voice of the mushroom kingdom and using the royal “we,” she lays on the New Age jargon, talking about the “pulse of eternal knowledge” and the ability to “sense the oneness” inherent in our third favorite pizza topping. Relentlessly chipper, the hard-sell narration sounds like a Monsanto commercial designed to convince us that the company’s latest pesticide is the bee’s knees. (We can blame the documentary’s “scriptwriter” Mark Monroe for this unctuous addition.) While Brie’s narration lays the premise on a bit thick, the film itself makes a pretty solid argument all on its own. The basic premise being that mushrooms are way more magical than you’ve been thinking. Even if you’ve been thinking that they’re pretty damn magical.
Did you know, for example, that mycelium—the white, threadlike constructions that form the vegetative, underground “roots” of fungus—have the same same network design as the internet! According to Fantastic Fungi, these fungal networks allow trees to communicate with one another. And that’s not all. The mushroom kingdom is the “mother of all life on Earth.” It contributes the oldest multi-cellular organism ever recorded. It constitutes the largest single organism currently on Earth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The evolution of the human brain from primitive apes could be tied to the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms. Fungi mitigate climate change by storing the carbon that trees process in their mycelium network. They’re a key component in medicine. (Penicillin, anyone?) Also, they can fight pollution by consuming oil spills. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, watching this documentary, that fungi actually wrote all of The Beatles’ hits!
Visually speaking, Fantastic Fungi is gorgeous to behold. Credit that to director Louis Schwartzberg, a pioneering visual effects artist famous for his time lapse photography (showcased in everything from Xanadu to Any Given Sunday) and a director of assorted Disney documentaries (America’s Heart & Soul, Wings of Life). As pure, headtrippy nature porn, Fantastic Fungi delivers. The primary purpose of fungus is to break down dead organic matter. And Fantastic Fungi gives us countless, fast-forward sequences of trees, plants, fruits and animals rotting into fuzzy, three-dimensional sculptures. Before our goggling eyes, all manner of mushrooms—from morel to lingzhi—spring from the forest floor in seconds. Ghostly tendrils creep across the leaf litter like a movie monster. Dude, did you know there are bioluminescent mushrooms! We get to see those too. Taking things a step further, the filmmakers employ some slick CGI imagery, showing us what goes on under the loamy surface of old growth forests.
So if you do nothing more than watch Fantastic Fungi for its Koyaanisqatsi-like visual delights (perhaps under the influence of some organically derived substance), you’ll get your money’s worth. And heck, you may just learn something along the way.
For commentary, Schwartzberg turns to a handful of serious mushroom heads—from professional mycologists to amateur mycophiles (described as “bloated pleasure seekers with a scientific bent.”) Among the commentators are Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Jay Harman (inventor of something called “biomimicry”), Dennis McKenna (a noted ethnopharmacologist) and Paul Stamets (a former logger who now uses fallen trees to grow mushrooms). Stamets serves as our enthusiastic guide for most of the film and makes for a congenial and convincing cheerleader of all things fungal. Dude cured his stuttering with psilocybin, has saved bee colonies from mysterious illnesses with fungal extracts and figured out how to kill termite colonies using “superattractive” spores. He likes mushrooms. A lot. And yes, in case you were wondering, Dr. Andrew Weil is here to talk about the benefits of “altered consciousness” under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms.
There’s no doubt that the people behind and in front of the camera are hardcore converts to the Way of the Mushroom—each one eager to edify this particular form of life and to spread its gospel, spore-like, across the face of the Earth. Admittedly, fungus is good for more than just rotting that onion in the bottom of your fridge. But there’s a difference between scientific appreciation and cult-like obsession. It’s possible that some of the folks in Fantastic Fungi like their mushroom a bit too much for comfort. Nonetheless, the film around them makes for an informative, entertaining and weirdly fascinating look at a tiny organism that is frequently (and perhaps unjustly) overlooked.