Fantastic Fungi

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Fantastic Fungi
"Brie Larson delivers a blizzard of facts, some of which will leave viewers looking at the world around them in a whole new way."

They've been around for millions of years and were once the dominant form of life on Earth. They include the oldest and largest individual organisms on the planet and their networks extend across almost every area of non-frozen land, for miles beneath our feet. But it's the ability of fungi to cooperate with other types of organism that really makes them fascinating. They form symbiotic relationships with plants, bacteria and even animals. Louie Schwartzberg's documentary peers into the fascinating world of fungi and asks what they have done - and may yet do - for humans.

One thing should be clear from the start: trying to make a film about fungi is like trying to make a film about every species of animal. It's inevitable that it will only skim the surface, going in depth in select areas but barely touching on others. Enthusiastic amateur mycologists should prepare themselves for the fact that their favourite subjects won't necessarily get a look-in. Furthermore, this is a film aimed at the general viewer and most people don't have much awareness of fungi at all beyond mushrooms and mold, so it has a lot of explaining to do. Schwartzberg gets as much of this as possible out of the way at the start with an introductory sequence that employs stunning photography to lure in the uninitiated whilst narrator Brie Larson delivers a blizzard of facts, some of which will leave viewers looking at the world around them in a whole new way.

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Later parts of the film include a brief look at the importance of fungus as a foodstuff (mostly focused on mushrooms in Western cuisine and with barely a mention of yeasts, despite all the exciting new work being done with them today) and goes on to look at its use in traditional and cutting edge medicine. There's an extended section on psychoactive mushrooms, touching on the theory that they played a critical role in the development of language and the evolutionary expansion of human consciousness, and a look at the research into using psilocybin to treat psychiatric ailments like depression and addiction, which was suppressed with the commencement of the War on Drugs. The radical social potential of widespread future use of such drugs is considered as a solution to some of our major social ailments, and there's also a look at the potential of fungi to help us solve some major environmental problems.

If some of this sounds like hippy woo, don't worry - though some of the perspectives offered are highly subjective, it's all well grounded in evidence. There's a lot more of that than is presented ere, Schwartzberg presumably not wanting to bludgeon his audience - his aim seems to be to inspire curiosity and provide a springboard for further exploration rather than to push a particular agenda. The focus on the effects of psilocybin on the human brain is complemented by a look at how the shape and function of mycelial networks resembles a brain. Other scientists have compared it to the internet and although no-one does that directly here, there is some consideration of the way plants use it to communicate with one another.

If you've never thought much about fungi before, prepared to be amazed. If you already know this subject area well, you may still enjoy a few surprises. Whatever your situation, you'll be awed by Schwartzberg's remarkable time-lapse images. His passion for fungi is written into every fibre of this film and it's infectious.

Reviewed on: 08 Oct 2019
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A journey into the magical, mysterious and medicinal world of fungi.

Director: Louie Schwartzberg

Writer: Mark Monroe

Starring: Brie Larson, Tony D Head, Michael Pollan

Year: 2019

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US

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