Astonishment. Pure, lurid, ravishing, genuine astonishment. That is Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. At times, you have to quadruple take, and what you’re looking at still doesn’t fully click. It’s so impossible to comprehend yet such a significant achievement in scientific study and documentary storytelling. Its story is massive in scope. On the short end, it covers 10 millennia, the span of human history. On the long end, it spans 4.5 billion years, the duration of the Earth.
“Anthropocene” refers to the recently coined epoch that many distinguished geologists and scientists believe we have entered as a result of the human manipulation of the Earth and its resources. Technically, as far as the official Geological Time Scale is concerned, the Anthropocene Epoch has not been legitimized. But, as you can imagine, it takes a little while to prove that the geological conditions and processes of the Earth have been altered enough to warrant official worldwide identification and confirmation of our current time interval.
Formally speaking, we are still in the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, but the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) has undertaken a scientific proposal for the International Commission on Stratigraphy to prove the effect of human interference in natural processes in order to formalize the Anthropocene as our current epoch. A major part of this effort has been The Anthropocene Project, “a multimedia exploration of the complex and indelible human signature on the Earth,” as the creators call it, which includes: this feature documentary, two major museum exhibitions, an Edward Burtynsky photograph collection, a series of film installations, augmented and virtual reality experiences, an art book, an exhibition catalog, and a comprehensive educational program.
In Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, we travel across the globe to witness this “human signature,” and quite frankly, you won’t believe your eyes. Move over, Planet Earth. Take a hike, Life. Sit down with your space shit, Neil deGrasse Tyson. There’s a new monarch in the kingdom of natural world documentaries. I’m kidding, of course—these all cover different topics and exist in beautiful, complimentary harmony with one another. But you have not witnessed Anthropocene.
Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky structured the film so as to evidence human impact as the “single most defining force on the planet,” according to the AWG, through terraforming, technofossils, climate change, industrialization, urbanization, deforestation, and extinction, among other things. With sweeping, immersive photography, they consume us with every remarkable location.
They thrust us into the largest nickel mining and smelting city in the world where meteor-sized craters are the result of complete removal of Siberian Earth. They transport us to the ruinous mineral mining of Carrara, Italy—a white marble mountain landscape both gorgeous and greedily abused enough to be infested with dwarves in the fantastical realm of Middle Earth.
We’re plunged into the surreal, electric acid desert of Chile recognized as the driest desert in the world and the leading producer of the planet’s supply of lithium. We sink into the gaping open pit mines of Immerath, Germany, that have driven out nearly all life with their giant inhabiting terrestrial machines, the largest ever built. We wade in the black water surrounding Nigerian villages of barefoot children operating industrial-sized sawmills for the sake of wood production.
We dive into The Great Barrier Reef along the coast of Indonesia and Australia, where obliterative bleaching threatens the subsistence of over 25 percent of all ocean life. We hover around the endless oil factories of Houston with their warm yellow lights littering the sky and their cold metal structures cranking out harmful gases into our dilapidated atmosphere. We’re dropped into the hallucinogenic swirl of potash mining in the manmade caverns of the Ural Mountains in Russia, which resemble the dark, plundered, sentinel-policed tunnels of The Matrix’s Real World.
The pace of the film and its many subjects is inconceivably slow in comparison to the modern, digital era we live in. It’s so old world, yet so futuristic. None of it would be possible without the exponential development of technology in the 21st century. It is the ultimate marriage of manual labor and technology, as post-apocalyptic as the most imaginative fictional accounts of our future.
Like in scenes out of dystopian films, gargantuan machines (literally) the size of skyscrapers plow the Earth at a snail’s pace surrounded by the dark, ominous dust they kick up. They are gods of their manufactured world. Overhead shots of various industrial sites and desolate cityscapes look like war zones, smoke and fire scattered across large expanses of muddied Earth. Every new location sends chills up your spine. Every new sight compounds the incomprehensible scale the film exists on. It’s exhausting enough to tempt me not to explain it to anyone, and I live for explaining movies to people.
But the scale is also intimate. Intimate and colossal at once. “Sometimes you need to go up in the sky to convey place, but if you stay up there all the time, you float away from what is meaningful,” says Baichwal. It’s our relationship to the Earth that forms the backdrop of Anthropocene’s meaning. We have a responsibility to both give and take. The filmmakers almost always start with a mind-blowing landscape, but they never leave humanity out of it, for better or worse. In its coalescence of the two, the film excavates the literally and figuratively deep relationship we have with the land around us. Regardless of how we treat it, we are in a relationship with it.
The filmmakers always eventually zoom in on the people in the machines, the factories, the mines — the people who most closely inhabit the scorched Earth and manage its resource-plundering. But as far as they’re concerned, and very understandably so, they’re providing our rapidly evolving population with the resources it needs to carry cell phones, drive cars, use batteries, etc. As frustrated as we might be with the people in the film for their short-sightedness, we are creating the demand that requires their work.
We are as much to blame as they are, and there’s no easy way out of this world we’ve created together. Forget national heritage. This is about natural heritage. How should we treat the world that formed us out of its dust? And what are we supposed to do now that we’ve so gravely tarnished it? Is it too late? Or can we swing the global trend of annihilation in the opposite direction? Those are disquieting questions, but such is the nature of the film.
It’s usually pretty quiet. Rose Bolton and Norah Lorway’s hushed, moody score provides just the right amount of tonal complement to the imagery. Alicia Vikander’s occasional silky smooth narration delivers grim yet necessary facts, like: “Every year, humans extract between 60 and 100 billion tons of material from the Earth and move more sediment than all the rivers of the world combined,” and “Carbon levels are the highest they’ve been in 66 million years,” and “Extinction rates are up to 10,000 times higher than natural rates,” and “A tenth of the world’s global wilderness has been lost in just two decades.”
Originally 203 hours of footage filmed over 3.2 years in 20 countries on six continents, Anthropocene is condensed into a poignant 86 minutes of riveting storytelling told through striking natural and unnatural imagery alike. It is the collision of scientific research and artistic expression that factfinders and environmentalists only dream of. Conversely, it is the spiritual enemy of all climate change deniers and their hoard of uneducated political pundits. And finally, it is a documentary masterwork that must be seen to be believed. And that belief is necessary, for, as the film concludes, “Recognizing and reimagining our dominant signal is the beginning of change.”