In the first minute of the Planet Earth series, the BBC’s narrator emeritus David Attenborough promises to “show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.”
Twenty minutes later, as you watch a one-ton great white shark breach 10 feet out of the sea with a 60-pound seal clenched in its jagged red maw, you realize Attenborough’s not messing around.
Planet Earth is the crowning achievement of 50 years of superb natural-history filmmaking at the BBC. Where previous efforts such as The Life of Mammals focused on a single class of animals, the Planet Earth series sweeps over the entire biosphere. Episodes are themed by major habitat (mountains, caves, deep ocean) and comprise a mix of satellite images, overhead views taken with a helicopter camera and close-up shots of beasts and critters as they hunt, eat, mate and play.
The result is a breathtaking survey of the majesty and beauty of life on Earth, made to order for a generation grappling with environmental destruction on a global scale.
Four years in production, the series teems with sequences that “stun the imagination,” to use one of Attenborough’s well-earned phrases. Chimpanzees hunt down and cannibalize a chimp from an enemy clan. Dolphins hydroplane up a beach to snag fish in the shallow surf. On the sea floor, crabs infest the putrid remains of a sperm whale, and in the midnight savannah, a pride of 30 lions tackles and subdues an elephant.
The series is a visual marvel. But the musical arrangements, audio editing and Attenborough’s buttery articulation make for great listening, too.
Planet Earth only hints at environmental themes such as habitat loss and climate change, though the series at times feels like a swan song for the natural world. A starving polar bear tries to heave itself onto disappearing ice floes. Two of the last 40 Amur leopards, desperately hungry, dig into a frozen carcass. “We can now destroy or we can cherish,” proclaim the poignant final words of the series. “The choice is ours.”
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