Louie Psihoyos is one of those directors who is recognized for his brilliance and not his proliferation. Though he has only directed a handful of works, his breakout film The Cove, a powerful documentary about dolphin hunting on the Japanese coasts that films like a documentary but feels more like a found-footage environmental thriller, set Psihoyos apart. Since then he has done little besides guest work on other films, including Chasing Ice and Dinosaur 13. That is until now, with the upcoming release of his new documentary Racing Extinction.
The basic premise of Racing Extinction is that the increased rate at which species are going extinct in the world bodes poorly for humans, so much so that it could lead to the sixth extinction-level event in the history of the planet. The difference being that the problem this time around is man-made and could still be preventable if proper action is taken.
Much like The Cove, Racing Extinction plays like an eco-thriller where the director and his team are the heroes traveling around the world and dealing with illegal whalers, engaging in seedy backroom deals with pinhole cameras, and doing ecological stunts to draw attention to the rapidly increasingly problem while attempting to find solutions.
The footage is, by and large, stunning and a testament to Psihoyos’ eye that he seems to know the shots that will provide the most emotional impact. Combine that with an incredible sense of animation and a variety of editing that contributes to the feel of every scene and you are in for a serious emotional roller-coaster. This is one of Psihoyos’ strengths: taking an evidence-based problem and creating an emotional connection to it in the viewer. In some cases, this is manipulative, but in the case of Psihoyos it instead comes off as a sincere attempt to reach an audience that doesn’t understand the abstract concerns and would react better to a more personal appeal.
The focus on oceans is one of Psihoyos’ signatures and his marine environmentalism is on full display here, even in the trailer. He does an excellent job of explaining the nature of larger concepts such as how the dumping of carbon toxins into oceans is killing off plankton, a major source of oxygen production, and destroying an ecosystem that we are part of.
The scale of the film is both a benefit to it and a hindrance. On one hand, it’s difficult to deny the power of showing a problem so wide spread and with such a big impact on literally every person in the world. It works in the same way that films that show global conspiracies can give a sense of dread since there is no place for the main character to go for safety, heightening tension. Racing Extinction provides that same tension, but the main character is the entire human race.
The problem with the ‘global scale’ is twofold.
The first is that it feels a lot like sequelitis. “Do The Cove, but make it bigger this time.” Psihoyos may have been the victim of his own success here, especially since a number of the Cove-style “hidden camera” scenes feel a little tacked on rather than a part of the more active film. The message of Racing Extinction is that we need to act and the passive nature of hidden video slows down that action, but there was probably underlying pressure to do the thing that he had been made famous for.
The other problem with the global scale is that it feels unfocused. While each small vignette is related to the general problem of extinction, the film feels like it jumps around a lot and losing us a bit along the way.
That being said, the film is still well done and extremely powerful. Psihoyos knows how to communicate a message and his passion is infectious. The best part is that the film is not just a way of showing off environmental carnage, it proposes and even enacts some solutions. The message of the film is that we can all help in small ways, like switching to an energy provider that sources power from clean and renewable sources to reduce our carbon footprint, or even just reducing the amount of meat in our diets to in turn, reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.
The fancy showmanship of the film, including a Tesla tricked out with a projection system to showcase conservation and extinction statistics on buildings, is the driving force behind the call to action Psihoyos is attempting to leaving his audience with. Racing Extinction, televised worldwide on Discovery channels December 2nd, presents as a thriller making clear the problems facing us and helps to provide solutions that we can be a part of, because after all, we are in a race to save our own lives.