Racing Extinction


Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) Louie Psihoyos, Shawn Heinrichs, Elon Musk, Jane Goodall, Christopher W. Clark, Leilani Munter, Ady Gil, Charles Hambleton, Austin Richards, Paul Hilton, Heather Dawn Rally, Michael Novacek, Travis Threikel, Stuart Pimm, Joel Sartore, Kirk Johnson, David Doubilet, Charlie Veron, Lester Brown, Synte Peacock, Elizabeth Kolbert. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos, a former contributor to National Geographic (now Fox’s National Geographic), made a literal splash on the national cultural scene with his documentary/thriller The Cove, which exposed the mass slaughter of dolphins on a particular Japanese island. Now a committed marine activist, he turns his focus to a much broader issue.

We are undergoing one of the most massive carbon spikes in our atmosphere in the history of the planet; the amount of carbon in our atmosphere currently is thought to be higher than it was when the dinosaurs went extinct, a very sobering thought. One of the consequences of the increased carbon has that it has been getting absorbed by the ocean, our planet’s great filter. The result has that the ocean has been gradually become more acidic, which in turn has killed a significant amount of phytoplankton, which provides about 50% of the world’s oxygen.

There has also been a die-off of entire species, one of the worst in recorded history. Psihoyos and his band of eco-activists can show the direct link between the activities of man and the disappearance of species. He takes hidden cameras into Chinese merchants who sell endangered species for consumption – piles of shark fins piled as high as the eye can see and manta gills, taken because a group of natives in Malaysia believe that they cure cancer. Often the folk medicines of one small group can through the miracle of the internet and word of mouth become fashionable elsewhere. He also uses operatives to bust a trendy L.A. eatery for selling sushi made with endangered whale meat.

Psihoyos pairs up with tech CEO turned activist Shawn Heinrichs to expose those who are flouting the laws governing endangered species; he also utilizes some gorgeous images of whales, sharks and other marine life from cinematographers Sean Kirby, John Behrens and Petr Stepanek. Psihoyos states bluntly that part of his mission is to introduce these animals to a mass audience; hopefully getting people familiar with these species will inspire people to help save them.

While the facts that are given are sobering, the movie isn’t without a bit of fun. Psihoyos enlists race car driver Leilani Munter and projectionist Ady Gil to create mobile holographic displays on skyscrapers in New York (a demo of which can be seen above). And some of the animal footage is bound to bring a smile to your face.

There’s also the less fun stuff but is no less fascinating. Special filters allow us to see carbon and methane emissions going into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factories and cows. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Psihoyos uses graphs and charts to make his point. And while I tend to be a supporter of environmental causes, conservative readers will note that Psihoyos attributes almost all of the extinctions to man and certainly man is culpable for a lot of it, but some of the factors for some of these extinctions may be more Darwinist than capitalist.

All things considered, this is an important, serious subject which is treated with the gravity that it deserves. It does end on a hopeful note; there are things that we can do as individuals to help nurture the planet and assist in staving off a lot of the dire things that the movie refers to. I suspect that supporters of Donald Trump will probably find this an uncomfortable viewing and might write it off as liberal Pinko Hollywood alarmist propaganda. Certainly the movie has a point of view that appeals more to left-leaners. Still, this is vital viewing for all of us – the facts are indisputable and heart-breaking, particularly when you hear the warbling of a Hawaiian songbird, the last of his species, singing a mating call for a partner who will never come.

Incidentally, if Racing Extinction doesn’t play theatrically in a city near you, the movie will be broadcast on the Discovery channel later on this fall. Check your local listings for date and time. If you can’t see this in a theater – and I would urge you to so as to take advantage of some of the truly gorgeous imagery, then this would be the next best thing. Either way I would urge you to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing cinematography. Sobering but hopeful.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to those leaning to the right.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cop Car

Chasing Ice


Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

(2012) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Louie Psihoyos, Adam LeWinter, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Tad Pfeffer, Suzanne Balog, Dennis Dimick, Emily Balog, Simone Balog, Sylvia Earle, Jason Box, Synte Peacock. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

The world is changing. That’s a given – our lives are sometimes too short a span to really notice it but I think most of us have noticed that the climate has been changing. Storms are becoming more severe; the summer of 2012 is one of the warmest ever recorded. Wildfires are becoming hotter and more frequent.

James Balog is a nature photographer with the National Geographic Society. He is one of the best in the world at it, having won numerous awards for his work which have for the most part dealt with deforestation and endangered species. He has recently become intrigued by ice and on a photo shoot in Iceland watched a massive glacier calve before his eyes.

Aware that scientists were recording that the glaciers were melting at a faster rate than previously recorded, he decided to document the event. To that end he set up the Extreme Ice Survey which raised funds through grants and Balog’s own personal¬† funds to set up cameras in Montana, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland (and eventually the Himalayas).

The challenges of doing this are severe. The equipment is delicate; setting up cameras designed to shoot photos once an hour for six months at a time in conditions that are as severe as any on the planet requires some innovative engineering (which doesn’t always work). Setting those cameras up requires sometimes precarious mounts which required some climbing skill. To make matters worse, Balog had some serious knee problems which eventually required four surgeries just for him to function.

But the results are worth it. Balog takes some stunning still photos of the ice which are just breathtaking while the video footage shot of the EIS team in these various locations show the stark beauty of the ice. Most importantly the time-lapse photos of the glaciers are terrifying and convincing – if you didn’t believe the scientific warnings before you will now. Of course if you listen to the airheads on Fox News you still might not.

Even more convincing is a massive calving sequence that was caught on videotape by the EIS of a glacier losing ice the size of Lower Manhattan and ten times the height of the Empire State Building. Watching the sequence literally took my breath away and left me with a pounding heart. It’s beautiful yes, but the implications for our world and our species is disturbing.

This is a movie that needs to be seen, to be shown in high schools and shown to government officials. The commentators at Fox News need to be nailed down into chairs and forced to watch it. America is the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t adopted stricter carbon emission laws and it is our job as citizens not just of this nation but of the world to demand our congress do so. It behooves us to remember that we are stewards of our planet – not for those who came before but for those who come after. James Balog and Jeff Orlowski are well aware of that – and the evidence is on the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible photography. Presents the argument for reducing carbon and carbon dioxide emissions concisely.

REASONS TO STAY: Only if you’re making a fortune in the oil industry and others that benefit from emitting carbons into the atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words uttered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balog was the first photographer ever to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. I would call it a critical success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Inconvenient Truth

ICE AT NIGHT LOVERS: There is a sequence near the end of the movie when Balog takes pictures of ice on a bright moonlit night (he cheats a little with some well-placed lights) that is simply stunning.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Vicious Kind