Debris is the true protagonist of this film: staggering amounts of waste that, when captured in just the right light, look more like art than trash. It’s only fitting that waste gets its star turn in a film about Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer acclaimed for his mesmerizingly beautiful images of quarries, mines, factories, junkyards, and other scenes of man-made sprawl.
Manufactured Landscapes follows Burtynsky as he tours China documenting the effects of its industrial revolution, from leaking oil rigs and mountains of discarded computer screens to villagers leveling their own homes to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest. The film’s cinematography closely echoes the scale and detail of Burtynsky’s still images; one of its most impressive moments is a seemingly endless, eye-level tracking shot of an enormous factory where thousands of workers toil away building electronics.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear what really makes Burtynsky, a self-described “subliminal environmentalist,” tick. The artist feels removed here, as if the filmmakers didn’t want to disturb his Important Work. Yet the film’s remarkable images still provide a stunning commentary on the global economy’s consumption of raw materials—notably human beings.