March 3, 2024

Film Review: Wild Life

4 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | May 27, 2023

The idea that you can become bolder, more creative, and more daring as you enter your last phase of life may seem counterintuitive, but 72-year-old environmental advocate Kristine “Kris” Tompkins shows us it’s possible in the new documentary Wild Life, a portrait of her most recent adventures as an environmental activist.

Her vulnerability, honesty, and drive will astound you, especially after a profound turn of personal loss in the death of her longtime life and business partner Douglas. Doug dies unexpectedly in a kayaking accident in Chile, leaving Kris devastated. His death also puts decades of huge eco projects in limbo as Kris struggles to recover and find a way to move forward.

The couple made Chile their ex-pat home in 1993. They had escaped to the South American wilderness determined to leave a lasting legacy using the small fortune they had earned from a series of business lottery tickets, including being a part of the founding of clothing empires like The North Face, Esprit, and Patagonia.

Their motivation became focused when they met late in life, and Kris and Doug began a quest to save the most precious resource on Earth before it vanished forever: the wildness of the natural world. Rather than wait for policy or social change, the dynamic couple took it upon themselves to buy millions of acres of land in Chile in the unlikely creation of the first ever series of “private” national parks.

This is more than a land grab; Kris and Doug simultaneously create sustainable infrastructure for maintenance and visitors to the parks, reintroduce biodiversity, and develop a path forward for future generations they hope will complete their vision.

How two idealistic American hippies turned into capitalist moguls (alongside lifelong friend Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia) is all part of the fascinating narrative. While Doug and Chouinard have been showcased often in stories of their lifelong friendship, in Wild Life we get to go behind the scenes, where the truth is often more interesting.

In Kris Tompkins we find a less familiar hero who is just as fierce and powerful as her male counterparts. Before long, it becomes clear just how instrumental and strategic Kris’ contributions are to the audacious effort to stop a global assault on open wild spaces.

It’s a journey of reverence for the natural world, a memoir of the hubris of youth that only the older will recognize, and a hermetic puzzle of what it feels like to suddenly confront the philosopher’s desire to plant trees whose shade you’ll never sit in.

Thanks in large part to the soft-handed direction of Jimmy Chin and Elizabthe Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo and Meru), the big screen cinematography showcases the vast South American landscapes. For the views alone it’s worth seeking the film out during the limited theatrical window from National Geographic Films, but a VOD release is expected soon.

In a week where all three top studio grosses belonged to fantasy fare, this uniquely layered story stands out for its humanity, emotional resonance, and the inspiration you can feel vibrating from the lead subject. It’s a remarkable reminder of the potential within us all that exists right here and now.

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