How to Blow Up a Pipeline movie review: it means the earth to them

part of my Movies for the Resistance series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A heist drama, incendiary and intense, with planetary stakes. These young people are desperate, with nothing to lose, and everyone older than them made them this way. Nihilism is their only optimism.
I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of finally forcing serious action on global warming
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

I’m always up front about my biases, but I’m gonna be extra clear in this instance. Even before I saw this movie, I thought it had a good chance of being the film of the year. Of the decade, even. And I don’t mean that I think it’s gonna win tons of Oscars or have the biggest box office. (I really hate those awards prognosticators who start predicting next year’s nominees and winners before spring has sprung and no one has even seen most of the movies that will be in contention.) I mean in a more fundamental, profoundly philosophical way. I wondered if this might even feel like the first movie of the 21st century, zeitgeist-wise. Like, in 2099, when we start looking back at what the past hundred years had been about, the ideas that had shaped it, will historians and culture-watchers point to this movie and say, “This is where things really kicked into gear”?

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I believe my pre-screening suppositions remain credible. I also hate that it requires a shit-ton of optimism to even suggest that.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
They wanna burn it all down before fossil-fuel globocorps burn it all up.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It’s an incendiary title for an incendiary film. It’s a little bit like a horror flick, in that it’s about a varied group of young people who get together and find themselves in a dangerous situation in which they might be killed. (Director and coscreenwriter Daniel Goldhaber’s previous feature film is 2018’s Cam, about a cam girl facing some weirdness. I haven’t seen it, though I plan to now, but it sounds like a smaller-scale version of the existential GenZ nightmare at play here.) The situation is both of their making and not of their making. The nice green planet they’re living on, with its temperate climate and drinkable water and breathable atmosphere, is being trashed beyond all recognition by people older and more powerful than they are. So they decide to express their displeasure with their environmental inheritance being destroyed in the only way left to them: by fucking shit up, violently.

The planet is Earth, of course, in the here and now. I don’t mean to suggest that the film pretends to be science fiction or that it withholds this information. It doesn’t. It starts off feeling like a low-key drama about disaffected young people the likes of which we’ve seen plenty before, only not with the stakes this high. I am trying to impart to my global-warming-denying, or just plain inexcusably fucking complacent, GenX peers and those older than us that, in many ways that really matter, we are bequeathing to future generations — including those already alive, like the characters in this movie — a planet that is already intrinsically alien to human life as it has existed since we evolved into something like our current form. (I’m not your fucking teacher. Google “how climate change has already put us on a new planet” to learn more.)

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
How not to blow yourself up while you’re blowing up a pipeline…

This was inspired by the 2021 book of the same name by Andreas Malm, which is not a novel but a nonfiction manifesto about how the time for nice gentle placid protest has passed, and now it’s time to let the fossil-fuel industry know that their vampire-capitalist bullshit is no longer welcome. With violence: not against people or animals but against property and infrastructure. So all the characters here are invented for the film, played by a deliciously diverse array of fab young actors: Ariela Barer (who also cowrote the script), Forrest Goodluck (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Revenant), Jayme Lawson (The Batman, Farewell Amor), Sasha Lane (Hellboy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Marcus Scribner (The Good Dinosaur, Farewell Amor). Beautifully, not a lot of infodumping is going on in this movie — we are mostly left to figure it out — but we can see that for the most part, these are young people from nonwhite backgrounds, some seemingly indigenous, who have not been served well by the supposed American dream. (The oil pipeline they are planning to blow up is in Texas.) There’s one character, a rancher played by Jake Weary (It: Chapter Two, It Follows), who is white, about whom it might be easy to assume that he a Republican — and maybe he is! though nothing is mentioned on this matter that I can recall — but even he is unhappy with the oil company that wants to despoil his land with the pipeline These Kids Today are working together to blow up.

So, like, when carbon crimes hit home, there is little difference between left and right. And carbon crimes are hitting home everywhere now.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
“And there, on the handle, was gasoline-pump nozzle!”

Pipeline is a heist drama, and an incredibly tense and intense one. But this is a movie that transcends mere entertainment, even while it is incredibly entertaining. It is about young people who are enormously desperate, and who have nothing to lose, because their elders have specifically engineered a cultural and physical environment that makes them desperate and that has left them no other options. We don’t have time for divestment, one kid says. We need to show how vulnerable the oil industry is, another kid says.

I say “kid,” but only because I’m old and they’re young. They are adults who fully comprehend the dire future they are facing unless they do something about it now. Nihilism is their only optimism. Are they gonna blow themselves up in the process of manufacturing their own improvised explosives, one kid wonders? “I don’t really care,” another says with a resigned shrug. They have no other choice. Nihilism is optimism.

I cannot help but think about the juicy fact that the very existence of this movie, the title of which is going to flood the Internet and feature in so many user-searches, is its own kind of radical culture-jamming. (Yes, the book also exists, but movies, even modest indie ones, have so much more reach than even bestselling books.) A web search to get information on how to actually blow up a pipeline will now be just one needle in piles and piles of needles.

more films like this:
Night Moves [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK | Mubi UK | BFI Player UK | Curzon Home Cinema UK]
• American Honey [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Kanopy US | Showtime US]

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
film buff
Fri, Apr 07, 2023 9:38pm

Oh man. Your review has moved this to the top of my to-watch list.

If this film strikes a nerve and gets popular, and maybe inspires some real-world acts, I can see the Republican fascists coming down HARD on the film industry the way DeSantis is cracking down on schools and libraries in Florida. Guess we’ll see how this plays out.

film buff
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Apr 08, 2023 8:58pm

Not that that will stop the fascists who have taken over the Republican Party.

Yep, exactly. They’re going to accuse you of doing a thing—the gays are grooming kids! the anti-Cop City protesters are terrorists!—and it doesn’t matter if you’re not actually doing it.

Whatever anyone does, however, I don’t think there’s any denying that this movie represents how many young people feel. And there’s no stopping that

Oh absolutely. At this point, if there’s any hope for this country and this world, it’s in the anger of young people (although we should ALL be angry). To take just the latest example, the expulsion of Democratic lawmakers Justin Jones and Justin Pearson in Tennessee is a travesty; but the eloquent rage of the young representatives (in their twenties!), and of their young supporters, is something awesome to behold. Justin Pearson in particular is giving me MLK vibes:

I don’t think the Republicans have quite realized what they’ve unleashed.

Of course, anger is necessary but not sufficient. Once the fascists take off the gloves (as they’re doing here in the US) they can keep a lid on public anger for a long time. There are plenty of upset young people in Hong Kong and China and the Middle East, but despite brief amazing moments of rebellion, I don’t see those regimes falling anytime soon. Then again, it’s still important to keep pushing for change, because you never know the day or hour when it finally comes.

This speech from Andor, the best Star Wars thing ever, comes to mind.