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David Attenborough returns to our loungerooms to point out the destructive swathe we’ve cut through the environment.
We take for granted these days that David Attenborough documentaries feature awe-inspiring cinematography, a crisp soundtrack and visceral scenes of animals on the brink.
Who could forget the footage of the Iguana hatchling in 2016’s Planet Earth II somehow wriggling free from the suffocating grasp of several snakes?
And the BBC’s 2019 Dynasties involved intimate portrayals of families of our favourite species, revealing the personality traits of the individual animals as we watched them grow.
With Our Planet, released on Netflix on April 5, the scope is magnified once more. The eight episodes are divided into ecosystems, crisscrossing into the jungles, forests and deep seas that are home to our remaining wildlife. According to Variety, the project was filmed by 600 filmmakers over four years in 50 countries.
But while Dynasties and Planet Earth were peppered with facts about species’ dwindling numbers, the message here is obvious. While we’re severely damaging our earth, the series says, and we must act now to save it.
Indeed, regular cutaways of the planet filmed from space remind us not only of what is at stake, but also that we’re in control of our destiny.
“Just fifty years ago, we finally ventured to the moon,” Attenborough muses in the opening sequence, as a camera pans ethereally over the moon’s luminescent surface.
“For the very first time, we looked back at our own planet,” he continues, as the distant earth slowly comes into view. “Since then, the human population has more than doubled.”
By framing the series with such an eerie opener the filmmakers are unambiguously conveying humanity’s threat to the earth. Humans are the aliens, they seem to say, and we could easily destroy it. At the same time, if we have the scientific know-how to get to space, they suggest, surely we have the ability to make the world right again.
Attenborough goes on to explain that the series will “reveal what we must preserve to ensure people and nature thrive.”
Our Planet was made by Silverback Films, Netflix and the World Wildlife Fund, and has eyewatering production values. Watching Lesser Flamingo chicks march in unison to a lake in some African salt plains was a sight to behold.
When they reach their destination, the chicks are met by bright pink adult flamingos bathing in the water; their reflections glistening on the surface.
Likewise, much of the footage in episode two, Frozen Worlds, was breathtaking. We not only see Antarctic penguins eyeing krill above water, but travel alongside them as they dive deep under the surface to catch it.
And yet, while life-affirming scenes abound aplenty in this series, they are contrasted with depictions of immense struggle, such as walruses balancing precariously on a cliff edge. No, this isn’t a metaphor, but an actual occurrence in episode two.
The walruses’ natural habitat of sea ice has retreated further north, we learn, so 100,000 gather on a beach in north-eastern Russia, where some meet a dramatic fate.
Similarly, after getting to know the unique creatures that call the jungles of Borneo home, we are soberly informed that half of their habitat has been destroyed. In total, humans have replaced up to 27 million hectares of jungle with palm oil plantations, ruining landscapes such as Borneo’s, which has been there for 130 million years.
Mercifully, we are given hope. Waters around Misool Island, in West Papua, were protected in 2007, and have since become a haven for sharks and turtles. And other animals bred in captivity have been released in the wild to rebalance the ecosystem. We can affect positive change.
Overall this was terrific work by producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. The music, by Stephen Price, gave a warmth to the majestic landscapes, and the sound editing by Tim Owens and Kate Hopkins created an immersive viewing experience; seamlessly weaving in the echo of the forest and the splash of fish jumping the water.
Scripting was also apt and sometimes hilarious. “He has all the moves…fancy footwork, the whirling dervish, the head plume shuffle—with spin,” Attenborough says of the New Guinea Western Parotia’s mating rituals.
A couple of episodes struggled to provide the intensity of others, such as the grasslands one, which dragged a bit at times. And producers have faced accusations the walrus scene was misrepresented.
On the whole though, this powerful series hits home. We are urged at the end of each episode to visit the Our Planet website to learn how we can take to improve the fate of those featured. Seems like a good idea.