'Anthropocene: The Human Epoch': Film Review

Pretty pictures of dire situations.

Co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky's third non-fiction collaboration, following 'Manufactured Landscapes' and 'Watermark,' looks at the devastation the human race has caused the planet.

Real doomsday scenarios are mostly the domain of comic book movies these days, even if our own planet could use a superhero save or two as well. That’s why it is important that films like Anthropocene: The Human Epoch still get made, even if its general points are familiar for those brave souls out there who still believe in science (and going to the cinema). Indeed, it is important to remind people — again and again and again — that we can’t continue to treat the planet like this. This gorgeously shot documentary is the third installment in a trilogy of films, following Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, though Canadian co-directors (and real-life couple) Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier don’t directly showcase their third co-helmer, photographer-turned-filmmaker Edward Burtynsky, or his work here, so all the beautifully captured soiled landscapes and Alicia Vikander’s voiceover need to do all the talking.

After its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where its presentation coincided with an exhibition that’s part of Anthropocene’s transmedia approach, the doc recently made an appearance in Sundance's Spotlight section. 

The film’s bookends are provided by scenes set in a nature reserve in Kenya, where the ivory of 10,000 elephants is inventoried — “in less than three months,” sighs a clearly exhausted park worker — and then stacked onto huge piles that will be set aflame to destroy the material. Though the illegal ivory trade is a well-known issue, the sequences in the film still manage to shock. It isn’t only the endless quantity of tusks that is shocking, as they represent the death of not only individuals but practically a whole species, but the implied human folly that set all this into motion in the first place. 

A scene later, we are in Norilsk, a mining town that’s got the dubious title of the “most polluted city” in Russia before traveling to Carrara, Italy, to look at how its famous white marble is quarried. The connective thread between these scenes is a very simple one: The Human Epoch explores how our species continues to alter and maltreat our planet at a very alarming rate. A Carrara worker suggests how quickly technology advances when he recounts how it took 20 days when he was a boy to extract a single block of marble, but nowadays it takes only one. That it’s still not easy, however, can be seen in one of the film’s most weirdly lyrical sequences, set to loud opera music, in which an enormous — yet still seemingly too small — vehicle seems to fight the non-negotiable inertia of a block of stone weighing tons.

De Pencier’s cinematography has a good eye for the beauty and horror of man-made or -altered landscapes, and it is hard to deny that the film benefits from being seen on as large a screen as possible, as impressive crane or drone shots fill the screen. But like with Burtynsky’s photographs, it is also hard to deny that the beauty of these shots stands in stark contrast to their purported message. Lithium extraction in the Atacama Desert in Chile, for example, is done in chemically bright yellow-green evaporation pools of water that, in the way de Pencier shoots them, look less like an ecological disaster — or at least a threat — waiting to happen than a temporarily abandoned backdrop of a fashion-forward Vogue shoot showcasing spring’s bold and bright colors. 

Thankfully, there are a few elements that at least partially correct this possible interpretation. Firstly, there is the voiceover, written by Baichwal, with Vikander perfectly giving off a schoolmistress-talking-to-her-pupils vibe that suits the basic yet very serious information it is meant to convey. (“Seventy-five percent of the non-ice-covered land is occupied by humans through agriculture and mining,” Vikander says, for example, or “Eighty-five percent of forests have been cleared or degraded through human use.”) And occasionally, one of the people onscreen is allowed to say a few words, like the marble worker in Carrara or the English-speaking employee in the Atacama Desert who explains, without a hint of irony, that they are “very proud of how they contribute to the world.”

The striking cinematography may spin and bore through tunnels in Switzerland at break-neck speed; take a few steps back to showcase the enormity of the world’s largest mining machines in Luetzenrath, Germany; or capture Venice’s flooded Piazza Grande. But perhaps the most impressive craft contribution is Rose Bolton and Norah Lorway’s minimalist and electronic score, which not only manages to add an disquieting, almost creepy undertone to even the most beautiful shots and which, because it is so clearly electronic, keeps emphasizing the human or man-made element. 

“We are now in the middle of the sixth great extinction,” Vikander explains toward the end. So a superhero save would be more than welcome. 

Production companies: Mercury Films, The Anthropocene Project
Narrator: Alicia Vikander

Directors: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky
Screenplay: Jennifer Baichwal
Producer: Nicholas de Pencier 
Executive producers: Edward Burtynsky, Daniel Iron, Nicholas Metivier
Director of photography: Nicholas de Pencier
Editor: Roland Schlimme
Music: Rose Bolton, Norah Lorway
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Spotlight)
Sales: Seville

In English, Russian, Italian, German, Mandarin, Cantonese
87 minutes