By Tom Shales
Sunday, March 21, 2010; E01
How sad that Marshall McLuhan didn't live to see high-definition television. The brilliant Canadian theorist famously and immortally declared, "The medium is the message," and HDTV brings that thought to vibrant and scintillating life. The medium is capable of such extraordinary and breathtaking pictures that even old messages are new again.
So it is that one side effect of the HD revolution has been the gratifying and edifying return of the nature documentary -- films about the hugely varied forms of life that eat, sleep, stalk, mate, fight, thrive, suffer and struggle on our dear and embattled old Earth. "Life," the new documentary from the BBC and the Discovery Channel, brings many of these creatures to the fore in fabulous clarity and with pupil-popping visual eloquence.
It's eminently essential TV, nearly as riveting as the mystery implicit in its title, and a worthy descendant of "Planet Earth," the first masterpiece of the HD age -- and the big television event of 2007.
"Life," which airs in 11 conjoined installments of two hours each, Sunday nights at 8 from March 21 through April 18, doesn't fully measure up to its illustriously illustrated predecessor. The scope seems less grand, the structure less effortless and the tilt more toward science than aesthetics. And darned if domestic tinkering by the Discovery crowd didn't impose a burden similar to the one that marred "Planet": the original and authoritative narration by David Attenborough has been replaced with a slightly dumbed-down Americanization by her majesty, Oprah Winfrey.
This is hardly to say that Winfrey is anything but intelligent, but her credentials as a narrator of documentaries are not quite in order, and her tone too often makes her sound like Auntie Oprey, storyteller to the kiddies. She's neither better nor worse at the job than Sigourney Weaver, the estimable actress who was miscast as narrator the last time.
Those who want to feel more enlightened than pampered will be able to purchase the Attenborough-narrated British original (configured somewhat differently) on Blu-ray or regular DVD as soon as the TV run is over.
The visuals, however, are what really count, and they remain untouched in all their heroically photographed glory -- best appreciated in high-def and on a large screen. Discovery made a few episodes available for preview in the Blu-ray format, and the difference between watching those on a 60-inch Sony and the others on a standard PC monitor really was more than just appreciable. It was -- let's see, what is the word? Oh yeah: AWESOME.
As with "Planet Earth," "Life" was shot in HD, after all -- digital from inception to presentation -- and it represents the dovetailing of other technical advances in filmmaking, the result being a gallery of images that range from startling to goofy, many of them simply not photographable until now. It took a special, teeny-weeny, newly developed HD camera, for instance, to capture the escape of a pebble toad from a predatory tarantula (aren't they all?) on a towering Venezuelan mesa in the chapter "Reptiles and Amphibians."
No spoiler alert seems necessary when revealing that toady-boy escapes -- and ingeniously, by rolling into a ball and hurtling off the peak. Soon the wee amphibian, no larger than a postage stamp and no heavier than a paper clip, Winfrey tells us, is lollygagging on a leaf or doing chin-ups, despite the absence of a chin, on a low-hanging twig.Capturing the whys
Separate but equal chapters on mammals, primates, insects, fish, birds and other beasties foster a new appreciation for nature's often amazing, sometimes whimsical, occasionally quixotic diversity. The images ask the great abiding question that haunts and informs the series: Why?
Why should a "Jesus Christ Lizard" be able to skitter up to 100 feet on water, not in it, and thereby foil a foe? Why must a mother octopus deep in the Pacific starve to death as the finale to a six-month vigil of guarding her newborns? Why do 10 million oversize bats of the Congo flock to a swamp in Zambia at the same time every year, accomplishing little more than gorging themselves on 6,000 tons of fruit? What are they, nuts?
The simple prosaic all-purpose answer has to do, of course, with survival. All the animals live by the three-word commandment "Don't get eaten," and yet there's always some species hanging around with an appetite specifically for them. But the real "why" goes much deeper; it has to do with the stupendous yet seemingly unnecessary variety of creatures that exist, even allowing for the fact that species are perpetually becoming extinct. Why should there be so many kinds of, for one example, chameleons, all of them having in common that they can change color but otherwise in tiny or major ways the same?
Asking this question led yours truly, years ago, to formulate the Penguitanical Theory of Divine Intervention, more accurately stated as "The existence of penguins proves the existence of God." Why? Because nothing as amorphous and coldly objective as nature, even if anthropomorphized into Mother Nature, could possibly have an imagination or, even more to the point, a sense of humor. It has to take a creator to create, and a whimsical creator to create, pointlessly, a bug that can inflate its own head and (appropriately) bug out its eyes and pass this ridiculous posturing off as a mating ritual.
Then again, the mating rituals of a certain two-legged, upright-walking, ego-driven primate we could mention also have their ridiculous side. Imagine what a Vogelkop bowerbird or a pair of Clark's Grebes might think of them.A visual splendor
Now and then, Winfrey will tell us that such-and-such a mating ritual or hunting expedition has "never been filmed until now," one grisly example being a fantastic assault by a Komodo dragon on a water buffalo 10 times its size. The literally venomous dragon sinks its choppers into the victim here and there, then spends three weeks following it around and waiting for it to die from the poison pulsing through its veins.
By the time it keels over with a pathetic plop into a muddy watering hole, the poor doomed animal has attracted nine more Komodo dragons to the site of its demise, and they all proceed to devour the buffalo so determinedly that its bones are eventually licked clean. Repellent and creepy? Perhaps, but also quite striking in its primal candor.
The script appears to have been moderately Oprah-fied so as to suit her conversational style. Sometimes this works nicely, as when Winfrey observes, "Females love a bug with really long stalks," or notes that a gecko is "so small, it could drown in a puddle the size of a pancake." Do we really need to be told six or seven times in an hour, however, that snakes are cold-blooded?
These are negligible complaints, perhaps, when the sights are so clearly the show -- be they the spectacle of humpback whales on a "heat run" that combines (hardly for the first time on this planet) battling with mating; ultra-intrepid ibex evading a hungry red fox down a shockingly sheer cliff in Israel; three brother cheetahs teaming up to overwhelm, of all the peculiar prey, a gigantic ostrich; or 8 million reindeer, filmed from a plane flying above them, migrating across the Arctic tundra and nearly defeated by hordes and swarms of flies and mosquitoes.
The producers of "Life" -- including Mike Gunton of the BBC and Susan Winslow of Discovery -- never make the mistake of assuming that all this wonder and splendor were put here to amuse humans as part of some great vast pageant of existence; a human being is rarely, if ever, seen and never missed. One gets the sensation of surreptitiously observing a world both familiar and alien -- of taking a journey so full of oddities and surprises that you may feel you're a tourist on your own home planet, and, actually, one of the less-intriguing species engaged in the struggle to survive.
More thrilling than many a thriller, more fascinating than many a mystery and more moving, in its way, than many a tearjerker, "Life" is rich, rare and pure video gold. "Life" is bigger than all of us.
Life, (two hours) premieres Sunday, March 21, on Discovery. The series will air every Sunday from 8 to 10 p.m. until the finale on April 18, when it will run from 8 to 11 p.m.