SXSW Film Review: Wild Life [Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2023]


Doug Tompkins, his wife Kris, and their close circles of nature-loving extreme athletes (climbers, surfers, skiers, kayakers… you name it, they’ve got it) rode the wave of entrepreneurship and popularized their ’70s free-spirit lifestyle into products that are still going strong today. This exulted C-level cast may bring people to this documentary to romanticize about dinner-con-night-walk along the Seine and all the other million things that seemed so easy to go right when the stakes are low. Yet, in reality, were the stakes all that low?

From Doug and Kris Tompkins’ point of view, they certainly were not. An extractive philosophy from both industry and governments held captive many other, more harmonious ways to give value to natural resource wealth. In developing and developed countries alike, the adjectives merely distinguished whether resources have been sufficiently depleted. Our society was happily re-opening the industrial wounds on the natural world, which had never fully healed since the 18th century. While the Tompkins cannot hope to sway the forces that be in the United States, they may yet do so for less entrenched nations and save them from dire straits.

Their plan was to simply buy land, to preserve and conserve through direct ownership. Unfortunately, their push for land acquisition in Chile and Argentina ran into bad timing of a significant proportion. Barely two decades after the tumult of the Pinochet dictatorship and that of the military junta, respectively, suspicions abound as to the true intent of these foreigners. After long hardships, Chileans and Argentines also had few reasons to give up their immediate prosperity for long-term ecosystem stability.

And so, as the stage opened and home videos of Doug Tompkin’s funeral rolled, this seemed destined to remain just another impossible American Dream. Instead of being just a touching memorial, however, the main thrust of Wild Life is to document the journey of Kris Tompkins as she completes the dream for her late husband. She would consolidate their land into practices and policies, and eventually establish functioning national parks there. Being mostly a documentary about nature conservancy, there are obligatory wide and stunning landscapes from both the ’90s and more recent times. It is also filled with interviews from the Tompkins’ close friends and allies in both government and civilian roles, but obviously only the positive influences. On the other hand, to fulfill the vicarious thirst to see people push themselves in needlessly harsh circumstances, it is also stuffed with tales enshrining how “hardcore” these early pioneers were.

A cynical take on the motivation here could be that of a brand-building exercise for North Face and Patagonia et al. But I’d like to think that is far from the truth. I believe the film was more about legacy building – by way of introducing one such, albeit giant, legacy, send a call-to-arms for all of us to build the same, multi-millionaires or not. Logical long-term thinking from any number of angles will inevitably favor “not destroying ourselves for the sake of some arbitrary definition of progress” as the all-time best practice. Sadly, while one can convince people to mime their love for nature via puffy jackets and carabiners, it is not easy to entice the uninitiated to live that nature-loving lifestyle. Yes, even with lots of money.

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest