First comes a crackling sound and the rush of a gentle breeze. Then, the deep orange glow of a roaring blaze that engulfs a black, indeterminable object. Slowly, the flames disperse and reveal one of many large piles with what looks like thorns sticking out from each side. The piles are later identified as 10,000 elephant tusks. Each pile was collected over just three months by poachers in a nature reserve in Kenya.
It’s a sinister opening scene that sets the tone for “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” a visually stimulating documentary about humans’ impact on earth. The film stems from the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, a group of scientists that formally declared the end of the Holocene epoch, which began 12,000 years ago with the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of “The Age of Man.”
Now, the scientists argue that we have entered an entirely new geological period, one defined by the permanent impact humankind has had on the Earth’s natural systems, properly termed the Anthropocene.
In the history of the planet, never before has so much change occurred in such a short period of time. The film highlights the unprecedented impact of this change and how mass extinction events, sea-level rise, warming ocean temperatures and altered atmospheric conditions are the result.
Using a combination of wide overview shots and close-up details, Canadian co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier vividly portray the degradation of the environment with scenes that seem like something out of a science fiction film. From toxic-looking, yellow-green lithium pools covering Chile’s Atacama Desert to microscopic scenes of bleaching coral reefs, the film is a perplexing visual journey wherein scale is the constant theme. Alicia Vikander’s narration emphasizes this throughout the film: Using concise scientific facts, the narration provides a clear description of humankind’s impact on the Earth, much like an apocalyptic nature documentary.
In other moments, little-to-no narrative description is needed at all. A sequence of scenes in Venice, Italy, show people wading ankle-deep through the streets of the city, depicting rising sea levels. Ominous shots of massive bulldozers, spilled oil rigs and grotesque mines in some of the world’s most polluted cities are often complemented only by the eerie, simple electronic score of Rose Bolton and Norah Lorway.
Given the overall feel of the film, one might be surprised that there are moments of humanity and resilience. The final scene, during which the flaming elephant tusks are finally revealed, shows that the ivory is being burned by government officials. The burn is a symbol of national pride and resistance against the poachers who would normally sell it for massive profits on the black market. It is a reminder that, while humankind collectively has a hand in the destruction of the planet’s natural ecosystems, we can still have a hand in saving whatever we can, however we can.
“Anthropocene” invokes the frustration and discontent seen around the world today through climate protests and voices of young people like Greta Thunberg. As a new year begins, it is important to see and understand painful films like this so that the immediacy of climate change can be felt with full force, driving the immediate acts necessary to save whatever is still possible to save.