“Wild Life” Review: Miss Vasarhelyi Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai
This time, the filmmakers of “Free Solo” and “The Rescue” ultimately refuse to fully engage with the more controversial elements of their subject.
Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Throughout their careers in Vasarhely, they captured people using nature as a playground, challenged by the world’s dangerous as well as majestic peaks and crevices. From the Oscar-winning ‘Free Solo’ to Alex Honnold’s risky climb to their 2021 venture ‘The Rescue’, about cave divers who help rescue a stranded Thai boys’ soccer team, the couple’s brand is both amazing vistas and cinematic thrills in itself.
Their latest, ‘Wild Life’, trades in many of the same themes and yet lacks tension. This time, Chin and Vasarhelyi ultimately refuse to fully engage with the more controversial elements of their subject and favor a lighter narrative of the triumph of love.
“Wild Life” tells the story of Douglas and Kristine Tompkins, a billionaire couple who bought up millions of acres of land in Chile and Argentina to turn into national parks. The film, which uses Kris as its primary source, is a paean to his good deeds and a memorial to Doug, who died in a kayaking accident, dramatized on screen with animation.
Chin and Vasarhelyi capture Kris’s overwhelming love for Doug and his palpable grief, but their goal is also to convince the film’s audience of the importance of their work, not only preserving these landscapes, but also repainting them, bringing native animals back to their rightful habitat. Watching the film, however, feels like you’re not getting the whole picture, mostly because the directors don’t delve into the inherent connections between capitalism and conservatism in Tompkins’ work.
These rich people are the good guys, we’re told, and that’s mostly all there is to it.
And they are very, very rich. Doug made his money by founding The North Face and Esprit with his first wife, Susie. Meanwhile, Kris was the CEO of the Patagonia brand. Primarily an adventurer, Doug gave up his business life in the late 1980s and moved to Chile. Kris described it as a whirlwind romance that ended with her leaving her job and another fiancé to join him in South America, where they immersed themselves in their conservation work.
“Wild Life” builds this tale around footage of Kris joining their friends and Chin himself, who has been invited along for the ride, on a mountain climb in Doug’s memory. Spectacular images of snowy mountain peaks are undoubtedly what audiences have come to expect from these filmmakers, but the film also draws on interviews and archival footage as it provides an overview of the pair’s pre-marriage careers and ambitious park plans. While this takes up a good chunk of the material—perhaps too much—of the doc, it also feels, on a surface level, like a Cliffs Notes version of their lives, where everything is shiny-eyed and anything too complicated is breached or not acknowledged.
The same is true as the film transitions to the section about their work in Chile and Argentina. Chin and Vasarhelyi certainly acknowledge the controversy surrounding the Tompkins projects, as well as the opposition from local residents, but they don’t question the idea of these Americans coming in and buying up land strictly as to what was “right.” method of preservation. In a review of Jonathan Franklin Tompkins’ biography in a 2021 issue of The Atlantic Michael O’Donnell wrote this “A harsh paternalism informed his treatment of the Patagonian people: I will take this land of yours and show you how to use it”.
In the documentary, Tompkins’ conservation lawyer Pedro Pablo Gutiérrez tells the camera, “We Chileans behaved very badly.” It’s a simple hand wave of explanation for the complicated emotions of an entire country. At one point, Kris describes Doug’s “stubborn, relentless pursuit of beauty,” and the land is undoubtedly beautiful, but the value of the aesthetic over the human seems telling.
The film’s entire runtime could have easily been devoted to the Tompkins’ struggle to open their parks, which Kris did after Doug’s death. However, the directors want to frame this as their love story, and Kris’ unimaginable sadness after Doug’s death is disturbing to watch and deeply moving.
At the same time, “Wild Life” falls short even as a portrait of this grief, spreading itself too thin when trying to tackle such a wide span of time. Doug, who cannot speak for himself, is surprised by everything and yet seems mysterious, this ruthless businessman who was also ruthless in conservation.
The result is a documentary that mostly looks like a PR stunt. “Wild Life” could have been a nuanced look at the clash between wealth and ecology, but instead it’s just a celebration of these rich people doing the “right thing” with their money. But who really pays?
Nat Geo release “Wild Life” arrives in select theaters today, debuts on National Geographic Channel on Thursday, May 25th and will be available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, May 26th.
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