Escape from Extinction is an informational documentary produced by American Humane, a conservation organization with a nearly 150-year history of positively influencing the treatment of children and animals in the United States. I have a lot of respect for American Humane, its missions and its overall effect on the world; the organization has formed a large network filled with expertise and compassion, and consistently done good. However, Extinction is the sort of documentary I have trouble watching — an 82-minute deluge of information with no cohesive narrative to tie it all together and no sense of a story being told. That makes for an inefficient information-delivery system, and it unfortunately means Escape from Extinction, as a film, fails at its aims.
Let’s get the synopsis out of the way first. We, as a world and a biosphere, are in the midst of a sixth great extinction. Unlike previous mass-extinction events, the sixth is entirely manmade, a result of humankind callously destroying the ecosystem that allowed Earth’s animal kingdom to evolve over billions of years. We destroy rainforests at the rate of three football fields per minute; we light fires that burn for months on end; we destroy reefs and other biomes as a byproduct of our actives. These activities are so insane in that they’re not only wiping out plants and animals, but they’re also causing our own environments to deteriorate at an alarming rate, resulting in much more intense natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. Extinction focuses primarily on the different conservation efforts American Humane and affiliated groups are making amid this catastrophe to save species of animals that are threatened by our disregard for life on Earth — animals like the gray wolf, which had a population below 1,000 at the time of the 2020 documentary, or the Chinese white dolphin, which requires government-sponsored preserves to have even the smallest chance of survival.
To give the documentary credit, it does feature a lot of information — a lot — delivered by legitimate experts in their fields of study. These include Anne Baker, a professor of zoology at the University of Maryland; Brad Anders, the director of American Humane; and Annie Byers, the chair of species survival commission at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (their roles as of 2020).
My problem is that for the most part, Extinction tells its story in the first five breathless minutes, narrated by the ever-estimable Helen Mirren. From there, it basically becomes a survey of various endangered species around the globe and the individual efforts being made to prevent their extinction. There’s a large emphasis on the development of conservation zoos and accreditation systems build by American Humane to certify zoos with positive practices. It becomes a very rote exercise — documenting facts but not presenting them in a way that makes them especially memorable.
The counterargument might be: Look at how terrible the sixth extinction is. How can you say a movie that lays it out so expansively doesn’t make a memorable argument? The first part of that statement is undeniable. The second part is, well … a call to action has to create a narrative in the minds of newcomers to the cause, and presenting over a dozen different stories in 82 minutes is overwhelming and, honestly, somewhat maddening. It feels like a lecture, not a story, and lectures are made for note-taking and study, not inherent memorability.
I can’t deny Extinction spoke to the part of me aware of many of its arguments and sympathetic to the cause, but even I felt subdued by all of its information by the end of the film, desperate for it to find a single strand to focus on that would give me an idea of what I could do beyond donating or visiting the website for more information. That doesn’t really come by the time the credits roll. It’s a good cause, but the only place I could see this really playing well is in a college course or club. There are other, more compelling depictions of the information shared here for anyone interested in learning about it.