Geologists divide time into epochs, which are divisions of time within a period like the Jurassic, the time of the dinosaurs. Within the present geologic period, the Quaternary, we have been in the Holocene epoch. But many scientists believe we are now in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, due to the enormous impact humans have had on the planet. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch makes the case for that idea in a dramatic way, in a documentary filled with beautiful and epic photography that illustrates just how extensively humans have altered the Earth.
The outstanding, dramatic photography makes the film fascinating to watch but it is what it has to say that will stay with you. The documentary is divided into chapters, like “Terraforming,” “Extraction,” and “Technofossils” and takes a measured, factual approach. Alicia Vikander provides narration but while the images are dramatic, her tone is even and matter-of-fact as she reveals facts about what we are seeing. It is the images, often aerial, that really make the point, and sometimes they linger, hypnotically, on the screen. A fine musical score underlines the effect.
Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal does an excellent job of assembling remarkable images and structuring those into a sequences that makes the film’s case for the far-reaching impact of mankind on Earth, one that justifies the naming of a new epoch. The images are drawn from all parts of the globe, and they often focus on more unexpected, less-obvious places changed by human presence and technology.
The images are remarkable, simultaneously stunningly beautiful and jaw-droppingly shocking. Many are aerial shots, of huge mining operations, mega-cities or time-lapses of agricultural fields. The artistry involved is impressive and the images themselves hypnotic but they also provoke thought about what we are seeing. Along with the images, we hear from the people involved in these sites, providing insightful, human commentary. One examples is a worker at the famous Carrara marble quarry in Italy, discussing how the site has been mined since Roman times and provided material for Michelangelo’s masterpieces. Now what was once done by hand is done by enormous machines that transform the landscape.
We don’t always know what we are seeing at first, which piques our curiosity. The documentary opens with one such image, a huge raging fire that fills the screen. We cannot see what is burning but we later learn in a bonfire of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers. They are being destroyed by Kenyan authorities, who discuss the image humans are having on elephant populations.
While mass extinction and climate change are part of the discussion, they come up late in the documentary and are not the major focus. It is instead, the far-reaching impact humans have had on the whole planet, both physically and on other forms of life here. This is a fascinating, thoughtful documentary film, filled with stunning photography, that makes a powerful point of which we should all be aware.