Escape From Extinction – Consistently engaging documentary

Director: Matthew R. Brady
With: Helen Mirren (narrator), Paul Pearce-Kelly, Dr Simon Dowell
Running time: 88 mins

Directed by Matthew R. Brady and narrated by Helen Mirren, this consistently engaging documentary examines the work of zoos and aquariums that are racing against time to protect endangered species from extinction. Produced by American Humane (the organisation behind the “No Animals Were Harmed” messages at the end of movies), the film has a specific point to prove and often feels promotional in tone, but it’s also well researched and packed with both great wildlife footage and interesting information.

Escape from Extinction begins with a sobering montage of dozens of species that have become extinct, like the poor old Dodo. In a vaguely amusing touch that may or may not be a deliberate movie reference, each animal in the montage disappears from the screen using the turned-to-dust effect from Avengers: Infinity War.

However, the film quickly becomes slightly more optimistic, noting that there are multiple threatened species have been saved from extinction thanks to human help. The rest of the documentary then focuses on the ongoing work done by various accredited zoos (a quick clip of Joe Exotic from Tiger King is used to demonstrate the difference between accredited and unaccredited zoos) and aquariums, who spend $350 million a year on a variety of projects aimed at protecting and ensuring the survival of endangered species.

Alternating a wealth of different archive material (news reports, smartphone footage, wildlife documentaries and so on) with comments from an array of knowledgable talking heads (mostly those involved in the various conservation projects) and a steady stream of onscreen captions, the film details various saved-from-extinction success stories and does a good job of teaching key terminolgy along the way, such as Keystone species (a species with a direct effect on many others in its ecosystem) and Trophic Cascade (the often catastrophic knock-on effect that happens when an animal is removed from its ecosystem, or its numbers significantly dwindle).

In the process, the film often serves up fascinating little moments and facts, whether it’s footage of a baby dolphin being born, the information that elephants apparently don’t like chilli peppers (and that lining a fence with them keeps them away), or the fact that conservation projects use 3D printers to make fake eggs in order to placate and maintain maternal instincts in female Kakapos while their eggs are taken away and incubated in laboratories.

It’s fair to say that the documentary is decidedly one-sided in its outlook, but it does at least acknowledge the existence and arguments of animal activists, animal rights groups and anti-zoo protesters, even if it can’t resist undermining them in the process – there are at least two clips where activists are interviewed on camera and their arguments quickly fall apart.

However, on that same note, the film also has a particular point it wants to make (highlighted by director Brady in the film’s press notes), which is that boycotting an accredited zoo or aquarium or pushing hard for animal release programs – even with good intentions – can inadvertently cause more harm than good. This is illustrated with the sad story of Keiko the Killer Whale, the Free Willy star who didn’t have the survival skills to make it in the wild, when he was released after a widespread campaign. (One of the talking heads was part of the rehabilitation team for Keiko).

As for Helen Mirren, she does a decent job with the narration, and you can’t help thinking she was an inspired choice, as she speaks with a degree of authority (she did play the Queen, after all) and no-one would really want to argue with her.

Ultimately, Escape From Extinction probably isn’t going to change the minds of many animal activists, but it does a terrific job of showcasing the sheer scale of the various conservation and saving-from-extinction projects in operation around the world, along with multiple heart-warming success stories. It will also make you keen to see a biopic about William Hornaday, the conservationist who single-handedly saved the American Bison from extinction. Casting suggestions, anyone?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.