“Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” puts a frightening twist on the standard nature documentary. Rather than exalting the awesome beauty of landscapes or animals, it captures alarming ways in which that beauty has been disturbed.
The movie takes its cues from the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, a team of scientists who in 2016 recommended a formal declaration of the end of Earth’s Holocene epoch, which began as many as 12,000 years ago. They argued that we are now in a new geologic phase, the Anthropocene epoch — a time when humans now change the Earth more than all the planet’s natural processes combined.
The film, part of a multidisciplinary project by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, hops from continent to continent to depict the scale of those disruptions, which at times have an almost science fiction quality.
The stops include Norilsk, Russia, which, thanks to the production of palladium and other metals, has acquired a reputation as the country’s most polluted city, although residents are seen celebrating its putative prosperity at a festival that traffics in slogans like “happy company day!” and “happy metallurgy day!” We visit a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, where the camera pulls back to reveal the vastness of a rock formation in which bulldozers are rudely digging.
Lithium pools in the Atacama Desert in Chile appear so otherworldly you begin to worry that they are toxic even to look at. A vulture-filled landfill in Kenya brims with technofossils, the name given to manufactured objects like plastic that wind up in the geological record. A sea wall in China has been fortified as a bulwark against rising water levels — and those fortifications will need to continue indefinitely. The filmmakers dwell for a beat on the sight of phosphate mines before revealing their surprising location: Florida.
“Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” is being called the third in a trilogy that began with “Manufactured Landscapes” (2007), which followed Burtynsky’s photography of the effects of industrialization in China, and continued with “Watermark” (2014), about the ways that humans have manipulated natural water.
The filmmakers’ approach encompasses both the tools of a PBS informational documentary and avant-garde cinema. Alicia Vikander, who narrates, cites disturbing statistics on the impact of deforestation on air quality, and there is a montage of species that are nearly or functionally extinct. In the presence of such found surreality, though, words aren’t always necessary. The movie opens with the sight of a giant bonfire and then returns to it at the end, revealing the previously not-quite-identifiable object that was burning.
As a work of cinema, “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” can seem a bit torn in its approach, caught between a desire to spread a message to mainstream viewers and more cryptic, artistic aims. At times, more information would be preferable; in other scenes, images speak volumes without words. But as advocacy, the movie is potent and frequently terrifying.