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TV Review: ‘Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink’

With:
Narrator: Jeffrey Wright

“Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink” is an alarming title, but given the cottage industry and political interests built around denying climate science, desperate times call for extraordinary appellations. Actually, beyond its name, this is an extremely solid documentary, detailing two of the five mass-extinction events that have occurred in the planet’s history, and making a fairly compelling case regarding present trends. Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, this isn’t the week’s most uplifting hour, but it might be one the members of the Environment and Public Works Committee — or at least likely new Republican chair James Inhofe — should be required to watch.

Cramming a lot of science into an hour, the project makes good use of computer animation and other graphics to illustrate the K/T Extinction, the asteroid strike that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago; and the Great Dying, which claimed even more species 250 million years ago.

Scientist Sean B. Carroll serves as a guide through the research, enlisting various colleagues in what essentially plays like a jigsaw puzzle, involving theory pieced together from the fossil and geologic record.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence, however, comes near the end, when paleontologist Anthony Barnosky suggests a sixth event is already in motion, exploring changes in the atmosphere and a loss of habitat that are hastening the disappearance of species.

Climate change has admittedly become a favorite issue in Hollywood circles — see Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” — and one that conservatives are fond of deriding. Their favorite rejoinder, “I’m not a scientist,” clearly reflects little interest in scientific consensus and what the vast majority of climatologists have to say on the matter.

In its title and tone, “Mass Extinction” is obviously intended to be provocative, but like hunting for fossils, scraping away the surface reveals a serious discussion of a topic that many wish would just go away. Of course, on the chance these eggheads know what they’re talking about, who or what might be disappearing, and when, is really the whole point.

TV Review: 'Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink'

(Documentary; Smithsonian Channel, Sun. Nov. 30, 8 p.m.)

Production: Produced by Tangled Bank Studios and Holt Prods.

Crew: Executive producers, Sean Carroll, Michael Rosenfeld; producer/director, Sarah Holt; writers, Thomas Friedman, Holt; editors, Holt, Daniel Sheire, Sam Green. 60 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Jeffrey Wright

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