Last Call at the Oasis, Jessica Yu’s documentary about the global water crisis, is both an informative bit of agitprop and an ultra slick and slightly self-satisfied bit of entertainment. In that, it resembles a new group of alarmist state-of-the-world films such as Food, Inc. that employ high production values, flashy graphics, trans-global locations, on-screen celebrity activists, and a concluding tone of cautious optimism to make their near-apocalyptic messages go down easy. To be sure, plenty of good information is imparted about genuine crises and all the expected doom-laden notes are duly struck, but the need to entertain often works at cross-purposes to the need to educate.
Not that an alarmist documentary need be aesthetically bland in communicating its message. But in detailing an urgent problem such as the world’s water shortage and the contamination of much of the potable water that does exist, Yu too often covers up outrage with pretty images and goofy celebrity cameos such as Jack Black, who shows up to produce a fake commercial for renewable bottled water. By the time the film gets around to its obligatory closing moments of manufactured hopefulness and the inevitable concluding title cards, one has the sense of Yu hewing too closely to the new formula for this type of film and frequently to the detriment of her material.
But the value of this material can’t be denied and, as a primer in bringing to light an issue that most Americans are likely unaware of, the documentary serves as a decent enough introduction. Yu does a good job, in the early going, of communicating the fact that while water shortage is generally viewed as something afflicting poverty-stricken countries, it’s a very real possibility in the near future here in America and, in some corners of the nation, has already taken place. Her wide-ranging inquiry jumps to Australia and the Middle East, but mostly stays in the United States, moving on to cover such topics as the plight of the California farmer who can’t irrigate his lands, the relative healthiness of bottled and tap waters, and the psychology that prevents recycled water (refined from raw sewage) from becoming a viable commercial option despite its ecological merits. It’s a heady stew and one that occasionally threatens to cover too much ground without focusing enough on any one area. Still, Last Call at the Oasis serves as an adequate overview of yet another global crisis, but in shooting and organizing her film like any number of contemporary edutainment docs, Yu ensures that water shortage registers as just that, one more global crisis, to be filed away in the back of the viewer’s memory among the other ills of the world.