Review by Sean Boelman
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are some of the best nature documentarians — and documentarians in general — working today. Although their careers are starting to go into more commercial territory, their newest film Wild Life still benefits from their phenomenal vision and is much better than anyone would expect.
The documentary tells the story of conservationists (and entrepreneurs) Kris and Doug Tompkins, and their journey filled with love, fortune, and generosity. The movie follows a very similar formula to Chin and Vasarhelyi’s other biographical nature documentaries, but the filmmakers effectively emphasize what makes their subjects’ story special.
At times, Wild Life can feel a bit unfocused, if only because the Tompkins have done so much amazing stuff that it would have been impossible to focus on just one of their deeds. However, the portions of the film that explore the Tompkins’ conservation efforts to form national parks in Chile and Argentina are outstanding and resonate deeply.
Because the movie so strongly centers on the relationship between Kris and Doug Tompkins, it has a strong emotional core. When the final act takes the turn that many people will know is coming, it still feels heartbreaking and tragic. Chin and Vasarhelyi are phenomenal at making films that attach viewers to characters only to rip their hearts out.
One of the more surprising things about the movie is how promotional it feels. Although it never feels so crassly commercial as their SpaceX doc Return to Space, Wild Life does at a few points come close to feeling like a promotional video for Patagonia and the Tompkins’ not-for-profit organization.
Still, the work that these organizations are doing is so important that the film can be forgiven for falling victim to over-praise. Even though Chin and Vasarhelyi are familiar with the subjects, they still do a great job of making the argument to the audience as to why they should care about these people and their actions.
Of course, the movie contains the breathtaking cinematography that has become Chin and Vasarhelyi’s calling card. Although Wild Life uses a lot more archive footage and talking head interviews than their previous movies, the footage in which the filmmakers accompany their subject on expeditions looks astounding.
Wild Life might not be among Chin and Vasarhelyi’s best work, but even their lesser films are better than a majority of the documentaries you will see in the year. Packing a legitimate emotional punch and offering some predictably gorgeous cinematography, this is a movie that fans of nonfiction cinema will not want to miss.
Wild Life screened at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.