The power of mushrooms

18 November 2020

At a time when many of our worlds are feeling a lot smaller, the film Fantastic Fungi goes someway in connecting you back to the natural world from which we come. Or as Paul Stamet would put it – the logger turned mushroom expert, and central figure in this documentary – “We are the descendants of Mycelium”. 

We meet Paul Stamet wandering through a beautifully luscious forest on the hunt for a new type of agarikon fungus, something that seems to be a normal part of his day-job as mycologist and mushroom entrepreneur. It’s here the lesson begins. Through the use of gorgeously shot time lapse footage, and very creative CGI sequences, we are given a guided tour of the mushrooms and their vast root systems, the mycelium, that live beneath our feet. 

Stamet is an incredibly charismatic and likeable teacher for this exercise, and his passion is extremely infectious. He does an amazing job at demonstrating this potentially underestimated organism as completely integral to our entire existence. The mycelium is an enabler of ecosystems, a tree communication system, and an intelligent self preserving life form. It appears mushrooms can do it all. We are even transported right back to the meteor that led to the fall of the dinosaurs and are shown how interwoven fungi are into the fabric of our evolution. This is all delivered in an earnestly passionate way which, if you’re inclined to go along with it, can be an informative ride. However, with a touch of cynicism the film can at parts feel overly evangelical about the apparent infinite potential of fungi. From curing Alzheimer’s to treating cancer, it starts to feel like a dubious cure all formula. With the addition of an oft-refuted theory about psychedelic homo-erectus, it starts to tread pseudoscience territory.

This film inevitably touches on the very current topic of psychedelic research and the use of ‘magic mushrooms’, or namely their active ingredient psilocybin, as a way to treat depression and end of life anxiety. From Dr Robin Carhart-Harris’ groundbreaking research at Imperial we know this not only to be true, but even to be a potentially imminent clinical treatment as phase 3 trials continue. It’s this example that is most effective at conveying mushrooms’ power. With moving personal accounts of the life changing potential of psilocybin therapy from research participants at John Hopkins, we are able to have a more tangible connection to the power of the fungi. If it’s this topic that brings you to this film however, a more in-depth and balanced depiction of psilocybin research can be found in the 2018 documentary about Imperial’s work, Magic Medicine

At its best this film is a visually engrossing education on our life-giving neighbours, with spectacular images of alien-like creatures exploding from decaying forest matter. At its weakest, it is a cheesy narration from the point of view of a mushroom.

- Reviewed by Harry Clark, Mental Health Researcher

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