THE STORY – A sweeping portrait of conservationists Kris and Doug Tompkins chronicling their fight to preserve one of the last truly wild places on earth.
THE CAST – Kristine Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard & Rick Ridgeway
THE TEAM – Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
The Earth is dying. This is a known fact that, for some reason, has been a debate and talking point for politicians over the last two decades. But the evidence is clear: the population is rising, consumption and pollution are rising, and natural resources are plummeting. Younger generations are protesting out in the streets, demanding that people of power do something to give their generation a fighting chance. For young people, it seems like the older generations, especially the wealthy, doesn’t care about the world they are leaving behind.
“Wild Life” shines a light on the rare entity: good people who use their wealth to do the right thing. Couple Doug Tompkins, the founder of The North Face and co-founder of Espirit, and Kris Tompkins, the founder of Patagonia, left their respected businesses to focus on a larger matter at hand: conservating wildlife and the natural world. Instead of relying on government forces to be an active participant, they took matters into their own hands: buying as much land as possible in Chile with the plan of turning it into a restored national park.
From directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (also serving as co-cinematographer) of the Oscar-winning “Free Solo,” “Wild Life” showcases the entire life story of Doug and Kris, from their youth, respected business founders, to their romantic relationship and conservation careers. The film showcases a lot of content, which is done in the traditional documentary style of archive footage and talking heads, specifically when accounting for the early years of the subjects. It may not be as anxiety-inducing as “Free Solo,” as it is more somber due to the subject matter and fate of its Doug Tompkins, who tragically died in 2015 in a kayaking accident. But Vasarhelyi and Chin pay tribute to the couple’s immense love and determination in conservation, even if certain aspects of their (early) lives take up a decent portion of the 93-minute run time. The message is clear and impactful, as talking heads put it best. They were “not in the business to make money, [but] in the business to save the planet.”
But most people, especially the Chilean government and its citizens, found that hard to believe. After all, the idea of American millionaires buying an immense piece of foreign land does raise concerns among the Chilean people. The ongoing conflict between the Chilean government and the Tompkins is perhaps the most interesting point in the film. If anything, this aspect of the documentary should have been given more screen time instead of Doug and Kris’s coming of age. The Tompkins faced many obstacles in pursuing this purchase and convincing the country that they bought the land for the purpose of turning it into a national park with no other alternative motives. It would have been interesting to fully see how the couple navigated this conflict, as most of the talking heads were in favor of Doug and Kris. Alternative points of view are mentioned, but only swiftly, quickly diverting back to the love story of the subjects. It seems that the filmmakers aren’t either prepared or interested in discussing the ethics of two white Americans coming to another country and buying foreign land and what the natives of said foreign land think about said action.
Even today, it is hard to believe that two millionaires would use their fortune to buy land in an attempt to save the planet and commit the rest of their lives to turning that dream into a reality. Actions like these just don’t happen. Most of the uber-wealthy buy land to turn it into factories to produce more products and pollution. People with power rarely use it for the good of mankind. But Doug and Kris not only saved 14.7 million acres in Chile and Argentina from that faith but reintroduced wildlife to the land and created full ecosystems within it, and then gave the land back to the people as a fully protected national park. People like the Tompkins are rare, and Vasarhelyi and Chin allow their love for the planet and each other to shine.
“Wild Life” showcases the potential of what people with power can do. Yes, Doug and Kris Tompkins saved an immense amount of land, and it is beautifully showcased through cinematographers Chin and Clair Popkin’s lens (the use of aerial and wide shots are meant to be looked at for ages). However, it is still just a pebble in the fast-evaporating stream. While the film is a celebration of the large-scale land preservation that was accomplished, it also showcases the work that needs to continue in order to fight against climate change. The heroism of the Tompkins is apparent, but the call to action will remain with its viewers. As Kris Tompkins puts it evidently, “When you consider what’s being saved versus what’s being destroyed, we’re on the losing team.”