Racing Extinction, Louie Psihoyos’ second documentary following 2009’s Academy Award winning The Cove, is a call to action regarding humanity’s role in the currently-unfolding extinction event. As various experts explain, we are living in the so-called Anthropocene epoch, named for the measurable effect of human beings’ behavior on the various life forms and habitats on earth.
I hesitated, at first, over whether to include “so-called” or any other indications of controversy surrounding the fact-claims of the film; there is some question, limited mostly to the far right in this country, of whether or not “global warming,” for example, exists, and further whether it is the result of our behavior, or simply a natural development; however, I’d rather not sport with your intelligence, fine readers, and I think we can get to what really matters: the quality of the film itself.
And I think this indicates a significant problem with the film, already, before I’ve even begun to discuss what it’s doing/how it does it. That is, the potential effectiveness of any issue documentary for which there isn’t (meaningful) disagreement and that is truly intended to incite activism for a widely-known, but hitherto insufficiently addressed, problem. The director (and star of the film, frankly) states the problem early on when he says, in a typical talking-head commentary, “We’re on that tipping point now where it’s either too late, or just the beginning, of a movement.” So how does Psihoyos propose to propel this possible movement forward?
Racing Extinction begins with footage of a sting operation perpetrated by Psihoyos and his crew on the fine dining establishment Hump, which had been illegally serving blue whale, an endangered species. They sent in diners with hidden cameras, whose footage and samples of the dishes provided the fuel for a newsmedia expose, which, however, failed to force Hump to close. Here already we see the problem with what was once a powerful tool for activism: though the surreptitiously collected footage was shocking enough to hold the media’s attention for a day or two, it failed to create a lasting, powerful movement. The documentary goes on to show how a protest in front of the restaurant similarly failed; but when a screen expert put up a large projected image of the whale, and stood in front of it declaiming the restaurant’s action, finally, they successfully forced its closure.
Psihoyos states, as do other activists in the film, whose adventures provide much of the narrative material, and if you’re interested in activist photography this is probably interesting to hear, that images can be a weapon, a tool for revealing and defeating injustice. These statements combined with the use of a swelling, dramatic score demonstrate the filmmakers’ belief in the usefulness of emotional appeal for gaining believers and fighters. And it’s their intent to repeat, on a wider scale, the success the saw in the case of Hump.
But there are two significant problems with the film’s execution of these goals. First, the subject shifts between various species, environments, and, more significantly, causes, focusing mainly on commercial fishing but addressing greenhouse emissions, particularly from livestock farming, fossil-fuel dependence and the resultant oil spills and other environmental damage, and more. As one of the interviewees says, we can’t single out any of these causes, we have to “attack it on all fronts.” Thus the documentary is forced to touch upon the various human-derived dangers for wildlife without depth, which would be required to develop emotional effect.
Secondly, the aesthetics of Racing Extinction are simply too bland to achieve any lasting change. Between the Williams-esque soundtrack, the sweeping, dramatically-angled visuals, and the insanely clear and colorful and expensive, produced-looking footage, the film looks and feels like a very well-made iPad or electric car commercial. Some people cry over these commercials. But do those people even go out and buy the product advertised?
In this, the age of the wide dissemination of ISIS videos and graphic torture reports on your local Barnes & Noble bookshelf, the issue documentary is facing an important impasse regarding the effectiveness of emotional appeal via the image. Take such a documentary whose usefulness as a tool for recruiting pedestrian participants has been considered fairly successful: Earthlings (dir. Shaun Monson, 2005). The film’s crude editing and snuff-esque onslaught of gruesome animal-abuse-footage, with its handheld and DIY-aesthetics, has apparently found a wide, reactive and now-politically-committed audience. Whether you applaud such efforts, the message for message-film directors is clear.
Having illustrated some generally-known but still-not-effective information regarding humanity’s role in the devastation of a hell of a lot of our planet, Racing Extinction acknowledges the overwhelmingly vast and multi-pronged causes of which its viewers know they take part. It concludes with title cards, ending on “Find your thing,” i.e. select a thing to commit to doing to do your part, hardly a new message, and, worst of all, “#Startwith1thing.” Here is the documentary as explicit marketing tool, whose sincerity and apparent naivety surely will not be missed by the kids, with their hashtags and their viral media.
CONCLUSION: Racing Extinction is an outdated, over-produced and unfocused issue documentary whose worthwhile goals are buried in unremarkable, forgettable execution.