REVIEW: Fantastic Fungi [2019]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 81 minutes | Release Date: October 11th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Area 23a
Director(s): Louie Schwartzberg
Writer(s): Mark Monroe

“We brought life to Earth”

Scientific study has recently shown that trees “talk” to each other. Suzanne Simard explains the process during the course of Louie Schwartzberg‘s documentary Fantastic Fungi as being the result of communication via mushroom. Much like the neural pathways in our brains, fungi in the ground (mycelium) create a network upon which carbon can travel. Trees can therefore stay connected with their “offspring.” They can protect them. And they can warn other plants in the forest of danger. It should therefore come as no surprise that others have discovered mushrooms with the potential to assist us in similar ways. There’s a fungi that might be able to heal neurons and cure Alzheimer’s. Psilocybin “magic” mushrooms can combat depression and anxiety. Turkey tail mushrooms can help fight cancer.

And we lost twenty years of research. That to me is this film’s biggest revelation. Nixon’s “war on drugs” put a ban of many hallucinogenic substances and a moratorium on spending money to figure out the benefits they provide despite positive signs in the years before he took office. Paul Stamets actually credits George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for enacting policies that further financed fungi studies beyond what a 1999 bill allowing for research to continue could. The sky’s the limit now as far as what might be discovered. Stamets himself found a way to use mushrooms and mold as an extermination method for termites among other insects. Fungi might even be able to repopulate our planet’s dwindling bee numbers. It’s utterly fascinating to learn about.

This is surely augmented by the fact I had no expectations. Fantastic Fungi? That title could bring countless results. I half expected a bunch of hippies talking about psychedelic mind trips and yet I was still surprised by what was said during those moments when hippies actually do exactly that. Why? Because there’s bona fide scientific purpose behind the experiences they had. It’s not about party drugs or peace and love (although some of that is absolutely relevant) when you learn how psilocybin’s properties can cure you of ailments via guided trips down the rabbit hole. Just wait until Stamets tells you how he conquered his stutter. Some stuff appears to be mind over matter, but the ways mushrooms and humans are linked can’t be denied.

This connection is something brand new to me. Whether it’s the hypothesis that psilocybin assisted in our brain’s rapid evolution or the general idea that fungi is the most prevalent kingdom on Earth with its hands in creation, death, and rebirth, its importance to life itself is unquantifiable. Mushrooms can clean oil spills and replace for-profit medication sustained by prolonged consumption. They can help us communicate with nature and more complexly understand the world around us as well as reality itself. Think of this movie as a venue with which to reshape our relationship with mushrooms and our western notion of fearing their power. It’s a fun and aesthetically beautiful presentation to combat our inherent prejudices and accept the possibility that fungi might be our salvation.

Stamets is the de facto lead whose words prove a lot more useful than the esoteric narration by Brie Larson. We hear from his family, peers, and academic offspring who wouldn’t be leading the charge in this field without reading his books and becoming inspired by his passion. He’s an entertainer who knows how to get an audience excited (you can find his TED Talks online) and really delves deep without alienating novices coming to the subject for the first time (myself included). Pair that with stunning time-lapse visuals and it will be hard not to come out of the theater with a newfound appreciation for these organisms. The faster the stigma surrounding the subject reduces for you and society at-large may end up saving your life someday.

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