Review: ‘Creeping Garden’ documentary covers slime mold with style instead of substance


A documentary on slime molds, “The Creeping Garden” resists and defies categorization, much like its subject matter.

Previously classified as fungi because of their appearances and nature, slime molds broadly encompass about 1,000 species in two or three taxonomic groups in the protoctista kingdom. Neither plant nor animal, these single-cell amoebas feed on bacteria but aggregate when their food source becomes scarce to form glossy, bulbous, shape-shifting multicellular plasmodia that develop fruiting bodies.

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What initially passes for PBS fodder doesn’t turn out like the garden-variety nature or science documentary. Unusually artful, the eerily prowling camera of co-director Tim Grabham (with Jasper Sharp) and the distant whooshes and electronic pings from a John Cage-esque score by Jim O’Rourke create an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere akin to Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Additionally, the film’s preoccupation seems to be trivial pursuits rather than actual microbiology.

It introduces Mary Field and F. Percy Smith, whose 1931 short “Magic Myxies” captures the evolution of slime molds through then-groundbreaking time-lapse. That nod adds some historical context and perspective to the film’s own vibrant time-lapse photography of slime molds rippling, crawling and expanding into bright yellow, gelatinous, membrane-like networks resembling blood vessels with freshly squeezed orange juice flowing within.

Artist Heather Barnett uses the Physarum polycephalum species to create wallpaper patterns and interactive art installations. She recruits volunteers among visitors to the “Biodesign” exhibition at the New Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to simulate behaviors of slime molds by connecting to one another using yellow ropes and carabiners. The scene plays out like a G-rated reenactment of Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede” trilogy, with about the same level of medical (and scientific) accuracy.

Still, Barnett’s endeavors seem sensible when compared to other experiments. Eduardo Miranda, a computer music professor at Plymouth University in Britain, hooks up a petri dish containing slime mold cultures to a piano to compose music. Klaus-Peter Zauner, a physical sciences and engineering researcher at the University of Southampton in Britain, allows slime molds to operate a circuit board on wheels. Ella Gale, a researcher at the University of the West of England in Bristol, uses data generated by slime molds to assign facial expressions to a disembodied robotic head.

Indeed, many of the experiments seen here appear to be frivolous (as opposed to using slime molds for cancer research, something that the film neglects to cover).

Unfortunately, Bryn Dentinger, the comparative fungal biology leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London and the lone voice of reason, seems a bit drowned out. All in all, “The Creeping Garden” cultivates more style than substance.



‘The Creeping Garden’

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: At Arena Cinema, Hollywood