Last night, Planet Experts hosted a special screening of Racing Extinction, the latest film from director Louis Psihoyos and the Oceanic Preservation Society. Having spoken with Mr. Psihoyos earlier this year, I was familiar with parts of the documentary, but this was the first time I got to experience the full feature with a packed theatre audience.

The short review is, the film is beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking. That’s all you really need to know before seeing it for yourself. But in the interest of thoroughness, here’s what else you’ll see.

The Movie Shows You Exactly What’s Killing Species

The original title for Racing Extinction was 6, an allusion to the upcoming sixth great extinction the planet’s facing. Prior to this point, there have been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history – catastrophic events that wiped out most of the life on Earth. We know about these mass extinctions because they’re preserved in the fossil record – in the layers of scorched matter buried deep underground, for example, and the preponderance of fossils among these layers. But biologists are now warning that a sixth great extinction is imminent, one that could happen by the end of the next century.

This time the cause isn’t a meteor or an encroaching ice age, but human beings. Through overfishing, climate change and an insatiable appetite for endangered species, we are rapidly depleting the planet’s life.

The film opens with divers following the trail of these gigantic blue whales. (Image: Ocean Preservation Society)

The film opens with divers following the trail of these gigantic blue whales. (Image: Ocean Preservation Society)

Racing Extinction largely follows the trail of the illegal wildlife trade, much of it in Asia, where shark fin soup is a delicacy – despite the hundreds of thousands of sharks it destroys every day. Psihoyos and his crew capture footage of giant manta rays stacked on concrete, their meat worthless but their gills cut out in the name of traditional medicine. They take you deep into the heart of the Asian food market, where cats, ducks and giant clams are stacked in blood-soaked corridors.

The problem is clear, and the problem is us.

The Movie Shows You Exactly What’s Warming the Climate

Climate change is also a major factor in the depletion of the planet’s species. Most of the planet’s heat is absorbed by the ocean, and it’s the absorption of this heat and carbon dioxide that is gradually acidifying ocean waters and killing its inhabitants. Once-thriving coral is shown to have bleached beyond repair. And scientists show the crew how carbonic acid (the result of too much CO2 being absorbed into seawater) breaks down crustacean shells into useless husks.

At one point in the doc, Psihoyos and his team take a drive around a city with a CO2 filter attached to their camera. The filter – which paints the world in a vivid, ghostly blue – shows just how much of this stuff is swirling around us all the time. “It’s disgusting but it’s beautiful,” somebody remarks.

The Movie Shows You Exactly What’s Wrong…and What’s Right

Many of the locales that the director and his team travel to are dangerously hostile to “greenies,” as one Hong Kong merchant calls them. And towards the end of the film, Psihoyos discusses what motivates him to travel the world and continuously place himself in harm’s way.

The Baiji dolphin, or Yangtze River dolphin. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

The Baiji dolphin, or Yangtze River dolphin. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

In 2006, the Baiji dolphin, also known as the Yangtze River dolphin, was declared functionally extinct. A handful remain, but there are too few to perpetuate the species. Before 2006, says Psihoyos, he was convinced something would be done. The Baiji is the final remnant of a class of cetaceans now long gone, and surely some government or organization would find a way to pull them back from the brink. But it didn’t happen.

“We always think there’s going to be someone else to save these animals,” says Psihoyos, tears in his eyes.

The film does much for environmental awareness, even going so far as to point out the intrinsic carbon cost of filmmaking. “One of the worst things you can do to the environment is make a film about it,” Psihoyos says ruefully.

Yet the final product proves that the alternative would be much more damaging. Racing Extinction is a film that constantly swings between the beauty and the tragedy within the natural world, and ends with a touching series of events that show hope is not lost and dedicated activists can make a difference.

“Better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” says cinematographer Shawn Heinrichs.

Racing Extinction shines very bright.

Planet Experts hosted a special screening of this film on Thursday, September 24. Check out our post-screening Q&A panel.

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