By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007
"Planet Earth" sets a new standard in nature documentaries. The 11-part BBC series is full of astonishing sights -- views of the Earth and its nonhuman creatures that outshine virtually anything seen on the screen before.
Years will pass before another program poses a serious challenge to this landmark.
Beyond its technical and aesthetic achievement, the film is so rich in spectacle that you won't want to take your eyes off the screen (except during commercial breaks, and it appears there'll be lots of those). One is bound to gain a new appreciation and feel a new respect for the planet, which, even in times of heightened environmental awareness, we tend to take for granted.
As "Planet Earth" lives up to the loftiest of expectations, the most fortunate viewers will be seeing the film on the Discovery HD Theater channel, because it was shot with high-definition equipment. And purists equipped with the latest home video equipment will be glad to know that "Planet Earth" will be released April 24 on all three DVD formats -- regular DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray -- and the two cutting-edge formats will feature the original narration of naturalist-explorer David Attenborough.
Unfortunately, Discovery couldn't leave swell enough alone when importing this production, which aired last year in Canada and the United Kingdom. Attenborough's voice was foolishly replaced with a languorous, drowsy narration by actress Sigourney Weaver, who was chosen for her reputation as a conservationist. In a quiet sequence about creatures that live in near-total darkness more than 1,600 feet down, the combination of Weaver, the eerie music and the slow-moving creatures is sleep-inducing.
Fortunately, words are kept to a minimum, and pictures, fabulous pictures, are allowed to dominate. Viewers don't need to be told that a panda is cute or that Mount Everest is tall when they can see that for themselves in awesome splendor.
Wonders seem unusually wondrous, captured by something called the "Cineflex heligimble aerial photography system" -- which is, the network says, "a highly stable camera attached to a helicopter" and one of many "cutting-edge filming methods" used during five arduous years of production.
If only the producers didn't show so much zeal in telling us how impressed we should be. There's a touch too much built-in ballyhoo, as if we're hearing a sales pitch for something we've already got.
In Part 1, Weaver tells us -- as wolves stalk and pursue a big goat -- that we are seeing "an entire hunt captured for the very first time." Okay, but soon after that, feral dogs are pouncing on an impala and Weaver says it's "the first time" that cameras have filmed "a complete view of their hunt and their strategy." Dogs wolfing down an impala aren't all that much different from wolves gobbling up a goat -- we're told a little too often how amazing it all is.
On the other hand, brief featurettes titled "Capturing the Shot" that follow the 45-minute episodes are fairly lively and informative. "Planet Earth" makes you wonder "how they did that" more often than any faked spectacles from the special-effects labs of Hollywood.
The bravado is understandable, though, and a relatively minor flaw. The film is breathtaking from the first shots of the first chapter, "Pole to Pole," a tour of the planet from the North Pole to the South. It starts with the sunrise that ends four months of darkness in the Arctic, then travels down to northern Canada for the 2,000-mile migration of 3 million caribous, stunningly impressive when viewed from above.
It's not long before a nearly extinct species of leopard makes dinner out of a deer felled in snowy eastern Russia. Then, much farther south, cameras catch the mating dance of New Guinea's blue bird of paradise (not to be confused with the "Bluebird of Happiness," elusive icon of a corny old song); the male bird goes into an incredibly elaborate production number, spreading his tail feathers like a peacock's, but the female, unimpressed, just hops away.
Elephants in the Kalahari Desert join baboons, giraffes, antelopes and other beautiful beasts in making their way through sandstorms to a swamp and their precious treasure, water. The sequence includes amazing footage of the elephants swimming and cavorting underwater -- graceful, playful and weightless. But as the tour continues farther south, warmth gives way to cold again, and the hour ends in Antarctica, where emperor penguins huddle and waddle together, protecting a precious egg that hatches with the first sunlight of spring.
As the series continues, there will be pandas and pumas, grizzlies and goats, golden snub-nosed monkeys and graceful migrating cranes, a gigantic whale shark and the swirling schools of little fish that follow it almost everywhere. From satellite views of the Earth floating in space to microscopic shots of a bug-eating plant sucking up an ant, the series is wall-to-wall with wonders.
Continuing themes include the mating reflex and the maternal bond (a baby elephant almost blindly following its mother through the desert toward water, or a mama polar bear taking her cub on its first outing on the snow). And, most of all, the persistence of life, the fight put up by creatures and plants of every kind to survive. When you see the surreal creatures running around on the ocean floor, some of them looking like hallucinogenic cartoons, you have to wonder why they're there and what put them there -- a great all-seeing intelligence or a coldly indifferent fate?
"Planet Earth's" high-tech accomplishment continues a TV tradition that goes back to such pioneering efforts as NBC's low-tech "Wide Wide World," a travelogue that aired on Sunday afternoons in the '50s, hosted by the great Dave Garroway, first emcee of the "Today" show. Even then, TV was trying to deliver the world. Garroway liked to end the show with lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay, and "Planet Earth" evokes them again:
"The world stands out on either side, no wider than the heart is wide; above the world is stretched the sky, no higher than the soul is high."
Rarely does television touch heart and soul as effectively as "Planet Earth."
Planet Earth debuts tomorrow night at 8 on Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater with the first three one-hour episodes.