It seems the world is hungry for more information about DMT, and newbie users may feel profoundly compelled to take on a missionary role in sharing the message. Such is the case with first-time director Mitch Schultz, whose inspiration to make The Spirit Molecule came after his initial experience with DMT, as he explained in the Q&A session following the West Coast premiere, screened October 15th at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco as part of the SF DocFest 2010. The power of this substance to elicit life-changing responses from people is also the most consistent theme throughout the film, a topic inaccessible to scientific researchers but unavoidable by the research subjects. The film places its primary focus on the vivid portrayal of these experiences.
For the DMT-naive viewer just getting introduced to the topic, the film provides a broad introductory range of engaging interviews and historical footage. The discussions with authors, cultural figures, and researchers are candid and insightful. While lacking a cohesive overall narrative, the film gives a general sense of the chemical's discovery, development, and significance from a collage of articulate speakers.
As a feature documentary, The Spirit Molecule ultimately suffers from the same Achilles' heel as Dr. Rick Strassman's book of the same name--subjective experiences and conjectures are presented as facts and standards, without adequate clarity for the layperson to discern the subtle differences. The title topic, in reference to DMT's entirely speculative identification as “the spirit molecule”, is largely unaddressed save for a brief sequence highlighting historical esoteric beliefs regarding the pineal gland. The suggestion to the viewer is that Dr. Strassman's research may confirm a suspicion long-held by a multitude of global cultures. There is no mention of scientific evidence, or lack thereof, to support this theory. As the film itself is narrated by Joe Rogan--a vocal proponent of DMT and also the most egregious source of disinformation about the drug--one must question whether dissent on this topic is welcome at all? It seems unwise to continually base the significance of DMT around the pineal gland hypothesis--for if it is disproven, the entire body of research may be subsequently discounted. Attention to other details in this film could be improved as well; for example, one segment discusses psilocybin while showing an Amanita muscaria onscreen.
A large segment of the movie is devoted to in-depth descriptions of the experiences had by the subjects of Dr. Strassman's study; these experiences are illustrated by moving visual graphics created by Scott Draves (Electric Sheep). While providing a tremendous insight into the diverse backgrounds of the participants, this segment quickly becomes tedious. For one familiar with the myriad of experiences possible with DMT, this sequence is like an overdose of Erowid's Experience Vaults come to life on the screen. It can be argued that Terence McKenna may have already said too much on the topic of what to expect from a DMT experience, and these enthusiastic (but unsurprisingly, less articulate) descriptions add little novel material to the canon. At worst, a new user of the substance may even be disappointed if s/he does not experience the effects in the manner in which they are so vividly described and illustrated here. The most poignant moments, by contrast, focused more on personal interpretations of the experiences or reflections on their meaning and significance.
Though The Spirit Molecule struggles to clearly define its overall message, the director is to be applauded for his bravery and persistence in reporting on this controversial topic. For readers of Dr. Strassman's book, the film brings the characters to life and provides an intimate insight into the deep personal nature of their experiences. Yet overall, the film provides little that is new. Academic researchers will find this a casual review of the topic, and perhaps be put off by vague inferences in place of references.
Clearly, this is a film for the curious. Those who have never tried DMT will likely come away charmed and intrigued by the many bite-size info nuggets, modern editing, and cutting-edge visual effects. In this regard the film truly succeeds in reflecting the director's intention--portraying a sincere enthusiasm and respect amongst researchers, subjects, recreational users, and spiritual seekers alike. This makes a profoundly positive opening statement for DMT as the lead character in a moving picture. For this, above anything else, the film serves a valuable purpose, and the message is delivered in a fitting blend of insight, color, and chaos.
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