“It’s beautiful, but it’s disgusting.”
That’s a quote from an activist looking at footage from a special camera that can detect carbon emissions from cars and trucks, even people, depicted in clouds of brilliant blue. It is beautiful to look at, but, of course, sobering as to its effects on climate change.
That quote could also serve as a mantra for several recent environmental documentaries, including “Chasing Ice” and the new “Racing Extinction,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival and now has its premiere on the Discovery Channel this Wednesday at 8 p.m. CST. This new wave of films wants to make environmental films that aren’t just educational and enraging but poignant, exciting — and even beautiful.
“Racing Extinction” filmmaker Louis Prihoyos knows how to make this kind of film. In 2009, he made the Oscar-winning “The Cove,” an investigation into illegal dolphin slaughter in Japan. Prihoyos brilliantly structured the film as a heist movie, as a team of activists infiltrated a guarded, secluded cove where the dolphins were being kept to document the slaughter.
He uses some of the same techniques with “Extinction,” but on a much broader canvas. Scientists believe Earth is heading for a sixth “mass extinction,” with as many as half the world’s species endangered as a direct result of man’s actions, be it climate change or overfishing or deforestation. So, instead of picking one front to fight his battle on, Prihoyos presents several over the course of the fast-moving documentary, following a variety of activists using a variety of methods to expose and stop environmental wrongs.
We see one man projecting images of whales on a giant screen outside a trendy restaurant that is serving whale sushi off the menu (he eventually got the restaurant closed down). We see activists projecting images of endangered species directly onto the corporate headquarters of companies whose actions are endangering those very creatures. We meet activists who are chronicling endangered species, such as recording the song of the last male bird of a species, “singing for a female who will never come.” Oof.
And we see Prihoyos on another of his undercover operations. This time, he poses as a fish oil supplement importer to infiltrate the offices of a wary Chinese shark dealer. The sequence is genuinely suspenseful, especially when Prihoyos’ hidden camera is almost discovered by his subject, and then turns heartwrenching as he gains access to the dealer’s rooftop, where literally thousands of severed shark fins are drying in the son, looking like rows and rows of gruesome shingles. “I feel like the world is absolutely insane,’ Prihoyos mutters.
That quote may get at the real adversary of “Racing Extinction” — despair, the sense that we’re past the tipping point on climate change and other calamities. “Racing Extinction” makes the point that the race is not over, and there are many things to be done on many fronts, using the diverse skills of many people, be they artists or scientists or fundraisers — or undercover spies — to make a difference.