Racing Extinction (2015)

Director: Louie Psihoyos
Writer: Mark Monroe
Cinematographers: John Behrens, Shawn Heinrichs, Sean Kirby, Petr Stepanek.
Composer: J. Ralph

From the same director of the Oscar winning documentary The Cove comes another documentary about the relationship between man and animal and the destructive power man can have. But while The Cove was a focused indictment of the ways in which man was specifically targeting dolphins and exterminating the mammal en masse, Racing Extinction suffers greatly from a lack of focus and ends up feeling all over the place, the end result mirroring more closely a cheaply made television special on a science and nature television channel. I watch a lot of documentaries (as any reader of this blog can easily notice), but hadn’t even heard of this particular one until it received an Academy Award nomination, though the nomination came for best original song and not in the documentary category (it wasn’t even on the shortlist) and it’s easy to see why. While the topic it addresses is extremely noble and important, the final effort is just not good.

The extinction of animals is something that most people are familiar with, and anyone over the age of eight or nine can name a species that is no longer around. The most famous examples are the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger. Thanks to organizations like the WWF (which never gets mentioned in this doc), we are also very aware of endangered species like pandas, rhinos, tigers, and gorillas. In many ways these are “sexy” animals: they are mammals, they are big and majestic creatures, they make for some of the more captivating attractions in zoos, and it thus makes it easier for people to care. What most people don’t realize is that the human race is causing one of the greatest mass extinctions the world has ever seen and nobody seems to be paying any attention. We turn a blind eye to sushi restaurants that serve whale in our own country, and what is happening abroad is far worse. Sharks are being killed by the thousands for their fins, manta rays are being decimated just for their gills, global warming and industries are causing species to disappear including amphibians and birds. Clearly we have a problem.

I wish the documentary had focused its attention on a specific example, like the manta ray, and followed that story line in a synecdochical capacity rather than keep shifting gears and try to cover too many different elements. I also wish the film were more self aware and less self indulgent. The filmmaker appears often on camera along with some other do-gooders, the problem is that they come off as being so out of touch and their fervor so preachy and holier-than-thou that watching the film slowly became a turnoff. Hearing an entitled former Wall Street executive pontificate about animal emotions while attempting to “educate” disenfranchised people in southeast Asia came off as so disingenuous and uncomfortable, I ended up cringing any time he would appear on screen.

The film also felt at times like a commercial paid for by the likes of Elon Musk or Leilani Munter’s management. Musk is the founder of Tesla Motors, and his factories and products receive an entire segment of the documentary. The same goes for Munter and the fact that she is a race-car driver who only uses sustainable energy and refuses to be endorsed by any company that doesn’t fit her own worldview. The film also includes an art project and interviews with Jane Goodall.

Ultimately, while the heart of this documentary and its makers is probably in the right place, the final outcome is just an incoherent mess. I couldn’t figure out what I should be feeling or what I should be taking away from my viewing experience. The sushi restaurant that the film attacks for the illegal service of whale has already shut down, so that can’t be it. Should I go buy a Tesla Model S car? Should we be trying to convince small communities around the globe to change their sources of income from the killing and sale of certain animal parts into turning their homes and villages into tourist destinations? This last point for me was one of the more troubling aspects the film seemed to be advocating, and everyone involved was so self-congratulatory without ever attempting to break down the colonizing and exploitative implications of such a mentality. I don’t know what to think. I know man-caused extinction is bad. I know what a carbon footprint is. I am empathetic to the many problems in this world. But what was the point of this film? As I want to write on so many papers my students turn in throughout a semester: so what?


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