Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have made their careers capturing humans who use nature as their playgrounds, challenged by the world’s peaks and crevices that are as dangerous as they are majestic. From their Oscar-winning “Free Solo” about Alex Honnold’s risky climb to their 2021 venture “The Rescue” about the cave divers who helped save a stranded Thai boys soccer team, the couple’s brand implies both gorgeous vistas and cinematic thrills.
Their latest, “Wild Life,” trades in many of the same themes, and yet carries little of that tension. This time around, Chin and Vasarhelyi are ultimately unwilling to fully engage with the more controversial elements of their subject matter in favor of an easier triumph-of-love narrative.
“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 their good deeds and a memorial to Doug, who died in a kayaking accident, dramatized on screen with animation.
Chin and Vasarhelyi capture Kris’ overwhelming love for Doug and her palpable grief, but they also aim to convince the film’s audience of the importance of their work, not only preserving these landscapes but also rewilding them, bringing native animals back to their rightful habitats. But, watching the film, there’s a gnawing feeling you aren’t getting the full picture, mainly because the directors fail to dig into the inherent links between capitalism and conservatism in the Tompkins’ work.
These rich people are the good guys, we are told, and it is mostly left at that.
And they are very, very rich. Doug made his money founding The North Face and Esprit, alongside his first wife Susie. Kris, meanwhile, was the CEO of the brand Patagonia. An adventurer first and foremost, Doug gave up his business life in the late 1980s and moved to Chile. He pursued Kris in what she describes as a whirlwind romance that ended with her leaving both her job and another fiancé and joining him in South America, where they delved into their conservation work.
“Wild Life” frames this tale around footage of Kris on a climb in memory of Doug where she is joined by their friends and Chin himself, who was invited on the trip. This imagery of stunning snowy mountaintops is what audiences have doubtless have come to expect from these filmmakers, however, the movie is also reliant on interviews and archival footage as it gives an overview of both of their careers before their marriage and their ambitious park plan. Though this material takes up a good chunk — maybe too much — of the doc, it also feels surface-level, like the Cliffs Notes version of their lives, where everything is twinkly-eyed and anything too complicated is brushed over or unacknowledged.
The same is true as the film moves into the section about their work in Chile and Argentina. Chin and Vasarhelyi certainly acknowledge the controversy surrounding the Tompkins’ projects, as well as the resistance from local residents, but it doesn’t interrogate the idea of these Americans coming in and buying up land with a strict notion of what was the “correct” way to preserve it. In a review of a Tompkins’ biography by Jonathan Franklin in a 2021 issue of The Atlantic, Michael O’Donnell wrote that a “harsh paternalism informed his dealings with the people of Patagonia: I’m going to take this land of yours and show you how it ought to be used.”
In the documentary, Tompkins Conservation Attorney Pedro Pablo Gutiérrez tells the camera: “We behaved, Chileans, very badly.” It’s an easy hand wave of an explanation for an entire country’s complicated emotions. Kris, at one point, describes Doug’s “dogged, relentless pursuit of beauty,” and the land certainly is beautiful, but the value of the aesthetic over the human feels telling.
The entire running time of the movie could have easily been devoted to the Tompkins’ struggles to open their parks, which Kris ended up accomplishing after Doug’s death. The directors, however, are also intent on framing this as their love story and, indeed, Kris’ unimaginable sadness in wake of Doug’s death is upsetting to watch and deeply moving.
At the same time, “Wild Life” is incomplete even as a portrait of that sorrow, because it spreads itself too thin trying to tackle such a wide swath of time. Doug, not there to speak for himself, looms over everything and yet still comes off as mysterious, this ruthless businessman who was also ruthless in his conservation.
What results is a documentary that comes off mostly as a PR stunt. Where “Wild Life” could have been a nuanced look into how wealth and ecology collide, instead it’s merely just a celebration of these rich people doing the “right thing” with their money. But who really pays?
A Nat Geo release, “Wild Life” will hit select theaters today, with a broadcast debut on the National Geographic Channel on Thursday, May 25 and a streaming release on Disney+ on Friday, May 26.