Escape from Extinction
7 Oct 2021
Matthew R. Brady
Peter Meadows, Alex Blumberg
Produced by American Humane, Escape from Extinction is a documentary about conservation. It is supposed to be a call to action, but the lack of focus and shallow messaging leave a bad taste in the mouth.
The film is technically proficient. Helen Mirren collects a paycheque for her serviceable narration, and Catherine Yang’s music is fine if forgettable. Sad piano pieces played over footage of animals in distress hit the nail a little too squarely on the head. The end credits feature an incongruous, saccharine song by Lisa Loeb whose lyrics have little to do with the preceding film. On the positive side, the editing is slick, though the film lacks focus, and the decision to cover general, universal conservation makes for a shallow product.
The documentary touches on how the media affects people’s views of certain animals and, by extension, how those animals are treated. Sharks in particular fall victim to this, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is specifically mentioned. However, the filmmakers blame young children for being afraid of the film. What they don’t mention is how beach attendance dropped in the 1970s, and how the film allegedly inspired men to hunt sharks en masse. In fact, Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, later said that had he known how sharks really acted in the wild, he never would have written it. Of course, the documentary mentions none of this. In fact, throughout the film, protestors are presented as victims of propaganda, not as having valid concerns. In the section on SeaWorld, animal rights activists are interviewed and, as they were unprepared for questioning, their hesitations are presented as foolishness and ignorance, juxtaposed with the well-spoken, educated conservationists. Joe Exotic and PETA are briefly (and rightfully) featured in a negative light, as are the protestors whose campaigns resulted in the preventable, tragic death of Keiko, the whale from Free Willy. Unfortunately, Escape from Extinction casts everyone who has reservations about zoos and aquariums and other organisations in a negative light, leaving no room for nuance.
The film also lacks historical context, glossing over important information. For example, William Hornaday’s work to revitalise the bison population in the American West forms a sizeable section of the film, but the reason for the mass slaughter is not mentioned. Railroad construction is partially blamed, but in reality, white Americans systematically culled bison in a racist, genocidal move to force Indigenous people into submission and surrender. The filmmakers ignore the racist white men responsible for killing the bison, and instead focus on the heroic white man who saved them. They also fail to mention the impact this government-sanctioned slaughter had on Indigenous people. Often, animals such as the wolves in the Yellowstone National Park are referred to as ‘keystone species’ – that is, species that affect biodiversity as a whole. Thanks to these wolves, there are more beavers and birds, and fewer coyotes. However, in only one section do we hear about the positive impact conversation has on people. Indeed, apart from the conservationists themselves, people are generally presented as ignorant or downright stupid. Of course, anyone looks heroic when juxtaposed with Joe Exotic.
Contrary to popular belief, documentaries do not have to tell the truth. Escape from Extinction lies by omission. Historical context and moral concerns are glossed over in favour of essentially advertising zoos, aquariums, and even controversial theme parks like SeaWorld. The film focuses too much on these organisations, and not enough on the animals themselves. Despite some powerful stories and legitimate criticism of certain groups, in the end, the film is essentially propaganda.