Movie review: ‘Last Call at the Oasis’ smartly sounds alarm on water

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“Last Call at the Oasis” is a playful title for a film that couldn’t be more deadly serious. A thorough examination of the epic crises threatening the world’s water supply, crises that few people are paying attention to, this documentary tells you to be afraid, very afraid.

Because the water situation is so dire, it has been examined before, in a well-received earlier documentary called “Flow.” But several factors combine to make “Last Call” stand out from the crowd, not the least of it being the surprising artistry with which it’s been made.

Maybe not so surprising, because the film’s director Jessica Yu, has a background that includes creativity-focused documentaries such as “Protagonist” and “In the Realms of the Unreal,” an examination of outsider artist Henry Darger.

Working with top drawer cinematographer Jon Else, Yu has made a film that is as visually arresting as it is smart. A complicated story cogently told, “Last Call” deals with the problem it’s investigating by casting as wide a net as possible, intentionally taking the advice offered by TV crime show “CSI” and “following the evidence even if you don’t like where it’s taking you.”

Because America has had ample water until now, we tend to be spoiled, blasé and unaware when it comes to the international water situation. Make no mistake, the film says, water is about to become more valuable than oil — it’s the element the wars of the 21st century will be fought over. We are using too much water, and fouling what we use.

Though the crisis is global, “Last Call” for the most part focuses on situations in the U.S. The first case study is Las Vegas. Though it seems that the water displays on the Strip waste water, the real problem is that the city has been allowed to grow more than it should given how little water it has.

The secret is that the city sits next door to the massive Hoover Dam and enormous Lake Mead. But because of Las Vegas’ growth, that lake is shrinking at an alarming rate, dropping 10 feet a year. The time is in sight where there will be so little water that the dam will stop producing electricity, a situation no one ever thought was possible.

“Last Call’s” next stop is closer to home, the great state of California, where there is simply not enough water to do everything everybody wants. Whenever experts point out the extent of the problem, all that results is bickering. As UC Irvine scientist James Famiglietti succinctly puts it, “we think we have a right to as much water as we can get our hands on,” which has led among other things to a frightening depletion of the state’s vast aquifer.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, “Last Call” fills us in on the dreadful world of industrial pollution, which is fouling what little water we have. Erin Brockovich, the namesake of the celebrated movie, is still fighting hexavalent chromium pollution, this time in Midland, Texas.

Also on-screen is scientist Tyrone Hayes, who discovered that Atrazine contamination was intense enough to change male frogs into females; as well as determined Michigan water activist Lynn Henning, who is trying to stop concentrated animal feeding operations that spread toxic waste. As for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to help us combat all this, the agency is, Brockovich claims, “understaffed, overburdened and broke.”

The irony of all this as far as our drinking water is concerned is that most people prefer environmentally unsound bottled water to tap, even though the content of tap is more strictly regulated.

There are not a lot of bright spots or a lot to laugh at in “Last Oasis,” but the film manages both with its examination of recycling sewage water for drinking. Given that we use 6 billion gallons of water per day flushing toilets, that would help a lot but the unpalatability factor is so strong that comedian Jack Black was brought in to help with a possible ad campaign. Like many things in this convincing film, it has the potential to change your mind.