'The Serengeti Rules': Film Review

Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Simons Science Sandbox, and Passion Planet Ltd Production
An attractive and (eventually) engaging doc that isn't the mind-blower it thinks it is.
5/10/2019

Nicolas Brown's doc introduces five scientists who study the "keystone" species whose populations keep entire ecosystems in balance.

An eco-doc about science's evolving understanding of how species interact with each other, Nicolas Brown's The Serengeti Rules balances the expertise and endearing enthusiasm of its subjects with its own tendency toward hyperbole. Hosted by and based on a book by scientist/author Sean B. Carroll, it advertises itself as "a unique story of hope" about researchers who "discovered a single set of rules that govern all life." Well, no and no. But being more conventional than it thinks doesn't keep the often beautifully shot doc from showing how what we were taught in high school might be faulty, and pointing toward ways of fixing seemingly permanent scenes of destruction. Competing with glossier nature docs, it will play best with science students and conservation activists.

Taking quite a while to get to its thesis, the film spends a long time introducing a handful of scientists who would eventually come to align their studies with the ideas of the late zoologist Robert Paine. (Paine is quite ill when we meet him here; press notes explain that he was dying of leukemia, and chose to spend some of his final days being interviewed for the doc.)

We hear about the childhood sight problems of Mary Power, who realized that she saw clearly underwater while snorkeling; we see flashback reenactments of John Terborgh's once-in-a-lifetime birdwatching outing. Both followed childhood passions into the study of animal habitats, as did Jim Estes and Tony Sinclair.

About a third of the film has elapsed before we get to the idea all these scientists have spent their careers on: the "keystone species" concept. While a lay person might understand natural environments in terms of a food chain, in which tiny plants feed small animals, which are hunted by larger animals and so on — meaning that everything depends on the health of that bottom-level food supply — Paine suspected things were more complicated. In an experiment involving starfish in tide pools, he found that removing a predator could change systems in unpredictable ways.

"Holy shit!" our excitable narrator exclaims. "A set of dominoes that we set in motion" have "bitten us in the ass." Mixed metaphors aside, the film hasn't really demonstrated yet how the disappearance of kelp in the Aleutian islands (an eventual result of whaling) is something threatening humanity's keister.

Brown eventually puts the pieces together, and offers many dramatic examples of what these researchers call "downgrading" — the devastation of plant and animal life that results when a keystone species vanishes from a region.

Happily, the situation is reversible, as a case the title refers to demonstrates: In Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, a viral disease called Rinderpest demolished the population of a keystone species, the wildebeest, leading to a dramatic downgrading of plant and animal life. But after a vaccine stopped Rinderpest, the wildebeest population exploded, and forests were reborn. Closer to home, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has had a similar effect.

That wolf project was launched nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1995; Paine first described the keystone phenomenon in 1969. So it seems fair to say that Serengeti Rules arrives a little late to live up to its self-image as a paradigm-shifting, life-changer of a documentary. It simply offers a chance to spend time with engaging people who've enriched our understanding of complex ecosystems, and who assure us that much of what we've done to the planet is reversible — provided we take action before the keystone species in question are still around to be saved.

Production companies: HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Passion Planet
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Nicolas Brown
Producer: David Allen
Executive producers: David Guy Elisco, Dennis WC Liu, John Battsek
Director of photography: Tim Cragg
Editor: Andy R. Worboys
Composer: Anne Nikitin

84 minutes