Documentary Review: “Anthropocene” shows human alteration of the Earth in stark beauty

The world’s largest excavator, or digger, chews through a wall of earth and rock that was once the German town of Immerath.

A young man, one of the thousands of residents of the Dandora Landfill in Kenya, raps to hear the echo in the canyons that decades of debris have created.

Chefs in Venice horse around in waders, carrying each other home, piggyback, as the city  streets floods, as they now do most any time it rains, or on certain tides.

A yodeling choir helps open the longest rail tunnel in the world, Gotthard Base, which runs underneath 35 miles (56 kilometers) of Swiss Alps.

A wildlife protection activist stands in front of $150 million in confiscated elephant tusks and sadly marvels how many elephants were poached to create this hoard — “Can you imagine? Ten thousand elephants!

These are some of the images, many epic in scale, in “Antropocene,” a documentary aimed at helping scientists make the case that the great geologic ages of Earth history have a new chapter. The Holocene Epoch, which began after the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, the argument goes.

But humanity, in just 10,000 years, has reshaped the Earth in permanent, astonishing and gravely destructive ways that will be obvious long after humans have gone extinct.

The filmmakers who gave us “Watermark” and “Manufactured Landscapes” travel the world to see the “story” that we’re leaving behind in “the rocks.” Oscar winner Alicia Vikander delivers a dry narration, the odd local witness speaks on camera (unidentified) and we see screen chapters on everything from “Extraction” to “Extinction,” detailing the ways we’re altering the ecosystem we live in.

An early visit is to Norilsk, “the most polluted city in Russia,” a sprawling complex of mines and smelting operations north of the Arctic Circle.

“It takes some getting used to,” one of the female crane operators admits.

In Atacama Desert, Chile, we see the vast array of drying ponds where Lithium sand is extracted to make the batteries that may save us from the hell that coal mining in Germany or the air-choking complex of oil refineries in Houston are pushing us to.

Maybe not.

With limited graphics and spare narration, “Anthropocene” shows the gigantic open pit where Carrara marble has been mined in Italy since the days of the Roman Empire.

“Climate change” comes up when looking at the seas rising on Venice, the “acidification” of sea water brought on by fossil fuels (a reef in Indonesia) and a 120 km/75 mile long sea wall that China built to, um, keep sea water from flooding their highly productive Shengli Oil Field.  

The images are occasionally bleak, and the messaging more pressingly so, as old growth forests disappear in British Columbia and Nigeria and landscapes transformed by industrial-scale farming are viewed from the air.

Yes, we’ve filled the atmosphere with levels of carbon dioxide not seen in 66 million years of geologic time. But at least we get our own “epoch,” the Anthropocene,” named after us.

And there’s a smidgen of cautious hope underscoring much of what we see here.

Sure, the Third World, China and Russia are setting a poisonous, destructive tone where regulation and wages and health concerns are lower. But the ingenuity that built that lengthy sea wall, that pierced the Alps and that has turned London’s old air raid shelters into vast underground farms (Bean sprouts, anyone?) can probably figure out ways to save endangered species, reduce carbon and move “extraction” into the realm of science-fiction — “off world.”

If only we can all agree to do it,

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: Narrated by Alicia Vikander

Credits: Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier, script by  Jennifer Baichwal.An Oscilloscope Labs release. 

Running time: 1:27

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