Whereas marine activist Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove” took an environmental crisis — specifically, the slaughter and sale of dolphins off the coast of Japan — and turned it into a white-knuckle suspense thriller, his even higher-stakes follow-up, “Racing Extinction,” feels disappointingly conventional by comparison, like something junior-high kids might watch on a slow day in science class. Though extremely well produced and loaded with even more covert save-the-world stunts, the film doesn’t engage in quite the same way, perhaps because Psihoyos’ squad has been so good about getting the word out along the way. Still, he’s right to recognize that a documentary will have a wider reach than his National Geographic and other old-media contributions do, bound to be amplified when Discovery Channel puts its muscle behind a worldwide broadcast premiere later this year.
Whether you believe the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, or just 6,000; whether you consider global warming a dire warning or an elaborate hoax; and whether you’re just embarking on life’s journey or already making your burial arrangements, “Racing Extinction” delivers a message of universal significance — namely, that mankind is directly responsible for endangering, if not outright eradicating, countless species around the world. Psihoyos intends for that fact to come as a wake-up call to those who consider extinction a distant phenomenon, the sort of thing that happened to dinosaurs and the dodo but not to animals living in our more eco-enlightened times.
But environmental messages can often seem overwhelming, making individuals feel helpless in the face of commercial powers and government entities that stand in the way of protective policies — which is why Psihoyos attempts a different tack. First, he seeks to create emotional attachments between human audiences and threatened species (much easier with dolphins than with sharks, though he attempts the latter all the same). “If you can show people the beauty of these animals, there’s a chance to save these things,” Psihoyos speculates in one of the many moments when the director, who appears as both talking head and front-line crusader throughout, seems to be his own main character.
That strategy supports his second goal, which is to make environmental activism seem cool, not for the purposes of self-glorification, but rather, to provide potential role models for future young radicals — no small challenge, given the lure that fame and fortune hold over the YouTube generation. It helps to show characters who’ve prioritized environmental causes over more lucrative careers, such as Ady Gil (whose HD projection screens can be seen at the Academy Awards) and Shawn Heinrichs (a digital entrepreneur turned animal-rights champ), who might inspire kids over such mainstream celebrities as athletes and hip-hop stars.
By combining these two approaches, “Racing Extinction” plays like a cross between Al Gore’s underlying “An Inconvenient Truth” lecture (full of alarming facts, infographics and eye-opening nature photography) and a full-blown Army recruitment video. If “The Cove” worked as a heist movie, then “Racing Extinction” plays like a sizzle reel for everything Psihoyos and his crew have been doing since, from busting the Los Angeles-based restaurant Hump for serving whale meat to infiltrating a massive Chinese seafood wholesaler where the roofs are packed with sun-drying shark fins. At great personal risk, they rig buttonhole cameras and assume false identities, taking meetings with those who illegally harvest and sell shark oil and other endangered-species byproducts (a rare caterpillar fungus, believed to have medicinal properties, sells for a whopping $44,800 per kilo).
Not all the missions are so cloak-and-dagger in nature — and each serves as an excuse to introduce a larger lesson. In the movie’s longest and most upsetting segment (though sensitive auds should be prepared for lots of animal carnage throughout), the team goes to Lamakera, Indonesia, and convinces the poor fishing community to stop slaughtering manta rays, working with the locals to shift to a more lucrative tourism-based economy. In Los Angeles, they ride around with a cutting-edge carbon-dioxide-sensitive camera to demonstrate the sheer volume of man-made emissions, contrasting that with stunning footage of phosphorescent plankton, whose decline spells serious impact on global oxygen production.
These are all exciting operations which individually might have supported separate episodes in a “Cove”-like reality series, but here, they’ve been pared down to a few minutes apiece and surrounded by so much other information (much of it fascinating, but far afield from the subject of extinction), there’s a risk of overload. Given the breaking-news aspect of his work, the documentary actually feels a bit like Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” deepening our appreciation of the efforts made to expose sensitive information that’s since been widely reported, but lacking the impact of sharing it for the first time. Instead, we get slideshows of how the world media reacted when the news of their various covert stings first broke.
For his grand finale, Psihoyos enlists race-car driver Leilani Munter, a tricked-out Tesla and a powerful projection system to pull off a massive outdoor environmental education campaign along the Gotham piers — impressive, but a strange place to end things. “Racing Extinction” tends to be far more effective when presenting its enlightened activists as heroes. Eco-issues can get a bad rap when presented by patchouli-scented hippies in tie-dye T-shirts, but when presented in such a dynamically scored and edited package as this, it starts to feel almost like a James Bond movie. And why not? These guys have the same goal, after all: to save the world.