Josh Fox's 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland" compellingly exposed the damaging impact of a form of natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, on small town America. Framed by Fox's wry perspective, the movie clearly demonstrated how fracking and the oil companies responsible for it endanger the safety of anyone living within its vicinity. "Gasland" contained damning evidence -- but apparently not enough to instigate much change, because now Fox has completed "Gasland Part II," which ably demonstrates the deleterious environmental ramifications of fracking on a much larger scale. Although overly dense and at times unfocused, "Gasland Part II" successfully continues Fox's crusade against the ill effects of natural gas.
The director returns to the personal stakes of the previous film by discussing the endangerment of his family home in Milanville, Pennsylvania, where water has been frequently contaminated by the arrival of countless drilling sites adjacent to their property. This time, however, Fox uses that investment in the issue as a jumping-off point for exploring much broader issues associated with gas companies' dominion over the planet's ecological future. Fox's exposition is a cluttered, scattershot affair that shifts from one location and case study to another with little narrative fluidity, but the collage holds together mainly due to his dark wit, snappy editing and musical cues that give the message an added kick.
A smirking banjo player whose drive to disturb the progress of greater corporate powers lends him the appeal of a chic Michael Moore, Fox repeats many of the complaints from the previous installment with a new series of faces and a larger canvas. This time, he's seemingly aware that no small victory can stop the forces at work. "As we know, in sequels," he says in a monotonous, Shatner-like voiceover, "the empire strikes back."
Early on, "Gasland Part II" takes the issues of the previous feature to a global level. An early bit finds the director visiting the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 4, 2010, flying in a helicopter at low altitudes that reveal the extent of the damage. He soon learns that the company has been using chemicals to sink the oil rather than mollify its effect on the environment. "We've lost the Gulf of Mexico as an ecosystem," a chemist points out in a fleeting interview, "but not as a source of fuel."
That first indication of a neglect for long-term environmental health reverberates throughout the movie, as Fox explores the export boom in natural gas obtainment that has turned fracking into a bigger issue than ever before. His travels take him as far as Queensland, Australia, where he discovers flammable water not unlike the resources found at U.S. fracking sites. He also explores the unlikely presence of fracking in the middle of Los Angeles and other instances of its debilitating impact, including earthquakes in Arkansas.
The pileup of examples is unsettling, exhausting and not always cohesive, though Fox certainly makes a good case against the future perils of fracking around the world: A study shows that some 50% of oil and gas well are likely to leak their damaging chemicals into water supplies over the course of three decades. Even the supposedly valiant efforts of the Environment Protection Agency to monitor fracking has been stymied by the influence of oil companies on how their sites are monitored, as one revealing phone call to Fox makes clear.
The director's activism naturally stirs up trouble, and while most of "Gasland Part II" lets its countless subjects lead the way, the story eventually returns to his personal antics: The finale involves a well-documented 2012 incident in which the filmmaker was arrested on Capitol Hill after attempting to film a congressional hearing on fracking; he handles the situation well, but ultimately gains nothing except another illustration of how much his hands are tied -- by getting them cuffed. In this David versus Goliath tale, Goliath still has the upper hand. "Gasland Part II" runs longer than the earlier installment, but ultimately it has less to say. Fox sounds the same alarm with a bizarre mixture of confidence in the message and an awareness of the vanity involved in delivering it.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? HBO will air "Gasland Part II" tonight at 9pm. Due to mixed reviews and the existing familiarity of the material, the movie may not gain the same level of exposure of its predecessor -- but the activist community involved in the project should help it maintain a solid broadcast reception.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.