Heist films and television are some of my favorites to watch, mainly because if genuinely well-executed, they are pulse-pounding and suspenseful. Peak television has gifted viewers with enthralling heists as featured in hits Breaking Bad, Animal Kingdom, and Mr. Robot, whilst cinematically, modern-day gems that include American Animals, Inception, and Baby Driver subvert expectations in major ways. NEON’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as any of these projects. After debuting at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival to critical acclaim, buzz was high for this ecoterrorism feature based on the book from Andreas Malm. How exactly does one dramatize a nonfiction book? An ensemble cast shines spectacularly, filling the shoes of their thinly-sketched characters, but How to Blow Up a Pipeline left me desperately craving the comfort of simpler, far stronger heist movies.
Boiled down to its vital elements, How to Blow Up a Pipeline finds a young crew of environmental activists desperate to enact the type of change that could ripple into life-altering substitutes, and permanently move people away from the horrors of the big oil industry. If they destroy something small, it could actually have devastating effects. On the brink of ecological disaster, these youths become convinced that they must scare people and rattle them to their core. They carefully concoct a plan together that will take the entire group to Texas. They cannot leave behind a single shred of DNA, nor can any of them get caught.
On thesis alone, How to Blow Up a Pipeline seems to be making the troubling argument that property damage and fiery destruction is the only way forward when it comes to societal issues and climate change. Not only does this feel like a dangerous precedent to set, but it could also be looked at by those opposing the sentiment as a sort of declaration of war on their principles. Wanting to scare off oil companies and move away from fossil fuels is an excellent theory in concept, and leads How to Blow Up a Pipeline down murky moral waters that may put off certain viewers to its intent.
This film tries to treat its characters with care, but not a one of them are fully-formed. Every major player gets their own flashback sequence entwined with their modern-day Texan sabotage of (what else) an oil pipeline. Caricatures include redneck trucker Wayne (Jake Weary), cokehead couple Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth), lesbian hippies Theo (Sasha Lane) and Alisha (Jayme Lawson), eccentric oft-bullied brains of the operation Michael (Forrest Goodluck), or the radical lead XochitI (Ariela Barer) who just lost her mother, among others. Occasionally, the dramatic zoom-ins and exciting score hit a couple peak moments that tie together flashback with current action in a manner that is exciting to watch. Too often, the backtracking through time is nothing but a waste. Their backgrounds feel like an afterthought, and further reinforce that the main focus was on the messaging rather than the actual story.
At the end of the day, I watch a good heist movie to feel suspense and thrills—on this level, How to Blow Up a Pipeline fails. It never feels like these individuals have even the slightest chance of failure, certainly not if the film’s message is to be conveyed in any type of light other than positivity. There are eventually guns and falling barrels, spectacularly vivid explosions and cathartic moments of release, but even in this realm, we have seen it before and done better. Perhaps this is a heist flavor that only the environmentally-savvy will be able to stand behind. The concept was rich with possibilities, and too often, the filmmakers here were content to just prop up their feet and lean into Ocean’s series tropes without anything new or exciting to say. How to Blow Up a Pipeline does at least have a point of view, though whether its message is a good or bad takeaway will be completely up to the viewer to decide.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline unravels exclusively in theaters on Friday, April 7th.