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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

Racing Extinction documentary review: the asteroid this time is humanity

Racing Extinction green light

A horror flick about the blundering of humanity on a scale so enormous that global warming is only a small part of it. But its monster is not unconquerable.
I’m “biast” (pro): worried about what we’re doing to the planet

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The whole world is singing, but we’ve stopped listening.” So says a scientist who has deployed recording buoys across the oceans of planet Earth to record whalesong, while the whales are still there. And then we meet a guy who — in one of the most pitiable things you will ever see onscreen — introduces us to the last surviving individual of a bird species that mates for life, a male singing for a female who will never respond. Oh, and welcome to the sushi restaurant that sells the meat of endangered whales, to thrill palates and selfish greedy soulless hearts. Racing Extinction is about the careless blundering of humanity on a scale so enormous that global warming is only a small part of it. We are in the midst of a great extinction caused by humanity — the last one killed the dinosaurs; we are the asteroid this time — and there’s plenty of biological diversity that will not survive long enough to be killed by the rising heat and acidifying oceans.

Louie Psihoyos’ new film may not have the movie-movie popcorn thrills of his save-the-dolphins heist documentary The Cove; this one is more of slow-burn horror flick… but its monster is not unconquerable. Psihoyos and his team of eco badasses from the Oceanic Preservation Society travel around the planet, from the illegal but overt trade in endangered wildlife in Hong Kong to an art project in New York and other major cities to raise awareness about the ongoing mass extinction; the projection of massive gorgeous photographs of endangered animals onto the sides of iconic buildings is a brilliant in how it subtly reminds us of the human ingenuity we can bring to bear on the environmental crisis. And so for every moment that makes you want to weep, there is something to give you hope: a shark-fishing village in Mexico, for instance, has transformed into one that is making much more money as a tourist destination for swimming with sharks, and maybe the same can be done for the Indonesian village that has been getting by on fishing endangered manta rays?

“The worst thing you can do for the environment,” comes Psihoyos’ resigned admission here, “is make a film about it”; filmmaking has a huge carbon footprint. And yet, it becomes clear, telling people about the magnitude of the problem really does make a difference; sales of shark fin soup, which decimates shark populations, are way down in Asia thanks to a massive advertising campaign highlighting the damage just that one dish causes. It is absolutely vital to know that going green can make economic sense even for the poorest of people (see: the Indonesian manta fisherman). It is absolutely vital to spread the word that it is not too late, that there are still many creatures that can be saved — the underwater footage here of every sort of animal from plankton to whales is breathtaking — and must be saved, if we’re to save ourselves. (If the plankton go, the whole food chain, which includes us, will collapse.) And it is absolutely vital to know that even individuals can make a difference; we meet a bunch of them here, doing comparatively small but unquestionably essential jobs and having a real impact.

So, will we win this race? Will Racing Extinction be the call to action it’s intended to be… or a requiem for all the beautiful creatures (including maybe us) here? We shall see.

See the film’s official site for ways to challenge yourself to race extinction.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Racing Extinction for its representation of girls and women.


green light 3.5 stars

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Racing Extinction (2015)
US/Can release: Sep 18 2015
UK/Ire release: direct to DVD

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated PG (mild bad language, footage of real animal hunting and slaughter)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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