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‘Racing Extinction’ review: We’re falling behind in this marathon

Researchers light methane -- released from the ice

Researchers light methane -- released from the ice after being frozen in place for eons -- in a scene from "Racing Extinction," premiering Tuesday on Discovery Channel. Credit: OPS

THE DOCUMENTARY Racing Extinction

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday night at 9 on Discovery, Animal Planet and Science

GRADE B+

 

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Earth has entered the sixth great extinction, this film argues. The fifth ended the dinosaurs, and this time, “We are the asteroid.” A production of the Oceanic Preservation Society — co-founded by longtime National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, interviewed extensively here — “Racing Extinction” goes undercover to chronicle the sharkfin trade, and much else. The message: “Humanity has sparked a cataclysmic change . . . We are the only ones who can stop the change we have created.”

MY SAY “Racing Extinction” at times felt like a 90-minute infomercial for a product I’ve already purchased — maybe you, too. Save the whales? Check. The planet? The sharks? The manta ray? For crying out loud, the Florida grasshopper sparrow too? Check, check, check and check. It’s also an impassioned, gorgeous, magnificent, sprawling mess. With a footprint that’s global, “Racing Extinction” does not exactly secure a firm purchase on any of the dozens of subjects it steps upon — from the acidification of oceans to the human destruction of a species (sharks), which has survived the preceding five. Even Elon Musk gets a plug here (and he doesn't need any more of those than he already has).  

But the take-away is more “love” than “mess.” Nobody’s getting rich from saving ocelots or loggerheads, after all, and when they are gone, they are really gone.

That’s the blunt-force message of Psihoyos, an advocacy journalist in the long tradition of an Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and someone who has moved well past the “journalism” part in this film. He makes sweeping statements and grand pronouncements — the occasional fact-check or attempt at balance be damned. Sometimes he just throws up his hands in despair: “I feel like this world is absolutely insane.”

But like “The Cove,” Psihoyos’ 2009 Oscar winner about dolphin slaughter in Japan, he and “Racing Extinction” do make a resonant point: Only when we see what is happening can we begin to understand what is happening, then do something about it. This film — which also deploys “Vice”-like undercover stings — wants us to see everything. Just don’t be surprised if “everything” can sometimes feel “overwhelming,” too.

BOTTOM LINE A gorgeous, magnificent, sprawling mess — and an important one — that can be overwhelming.

 

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