Escape from Extinction
2020, NR, 88 min. Directed by Matthew R. Brady. Narrated by Helen Mirren.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Oct. 16, 2020
It isn’t often that a documentary about animal conservation is publicly criticized by PETA the week before its release. Then again, most films aren’t Escape from Extinction, the first film produced directly by American Humane.
Gathering researchers and administrators from some of the top zoos in the country, the film explores the countless species threatened by human-made climate change. With narration from the always-dependable Helen Mirren, the film focuses on a handful of endangered animals, recounting their brush with extinction and the work that zoos and conservationists performed to bring them back from the brink. When it works, Escape from Extinction is an enlightening examination of modern repopulation methods such as cross-fostering. But when the film shifts its spotlight from animals to the people who serve them, it too often feels like a gift shop DVD meant to reassure families that their annual visit to the zoo can be reinstated guilt-free.
For those who prefer the appearance of impartiality in their documentaries, Escape from Extinction is a profoundly frustrating affair. Much of the narrative involves offering examples of species that have successfully been saved from extinction, backed by an endless supply of B-roll footage proving that these efforts could not have occurred without the support of local zoos and aquariums. Much is also made of producer American Humane’s zoo and aquarium certification program, meant to separate the “bad” zoos from the ones with a conservationist bent. In doing this, the film sets its sights squarely on activists, intercutting black-and-white footage of animal rights protests with ominous music. (This is despite a segment dedicated to the misrepresentation of sharks in mainstream media, where the use of manipulative editing tactics – including misleading musical cues – is specifically frowned upon by the filmmakers.)
This framework might remind us what zoos have to offer behind exhibition, but it also raises questions about what threads are being let out. For example, Escape from Extinction also shines a light on the work of William Hornaday, famed hunter and conservationist of the early nineteenth century. While Hornaday is praised for preventing the extinction of bison populations in North America, the film chooses to sidestep his well-documented racism. This is despite recent apologies from both the Wildlife Conservation Society and Iowa State, who went so far as to remove a plaque commemorating their famous alumnus. In a film so hellbent on repairing the reputations of our national zoos and aquariums, omissions like this reinforce the nagging feeling that Escape from Extinction is more interested in pushing a redemptive narrative than engaging with complex questions of how conservation fits into our complex global world.
Mass extinction is indeed a human-made disaster that requires our direct intervention. It is also undoubtedly true that researchers featured in Escape from Extinction care deeply about the conservation of endangered species. But when the challenges of commerce and climate change are so inexorably linked, we have a desperate need for voices who put the interest of our ecosystem and its wildlife above all else. This film may shed significant insight into zoological conservation efforts, but there is never any question of which institutions benefit the most from its version of history.