By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; 12:00 AM
Most of us will never get the opportunity to visit Kenya and watch a hungry pack of cheetahs stalk an unsuspecting ostrich. Odds are equally slim that we'll ever plunge through eight feet of Antarctic ice and into the depths of the Earth's southernmost seas to observe the starfish creeping ever so slowly along the dark and chilly ocean floor.
Thankfully, we have "Life" -- the stunning nature documentary from the BBC and the Discovery Channel that debuts today on DVD ($59.99) and Blu-ray ($69.99) -- to make sure we can have at least some version of those experiences. With its immersive camerawork, jaw-dropping depictions of wildlife in action and stunning high-definition imagery, "Life," like its antecedent, "Planet Earth," really is the next best thing to being right beside a humpback whale, a preening pink flamingo or a baby meerkat.
Shot entirely in high-definition, "Life" is best appreciated in the Blu-ray format, where the eye-popping journey across seven continents and into the existences of 200 species, from milkweed plants to chimpanzees, is shown off to most gorgeously dramatic effect. In addition to all 11 parts of the series, the four-disc set includes 18 minutes of deleted scenes and the BBC's 10 making-of featurettes that accompany the core, 43-minute episodes that first aired in the UK last year.
The material covered in those featurettes overlaps somewhat with the eleventh installment in the American version of the series, "The Making of 'Life,'" which depicts the painstaking efforts involved in capturing all the exceptionally intimate footage in the series. In one particularly exhausting example, cameraman Barrie Britton and his crew carry 40 pounds of equipment on a multi-day trek into the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, then spend days staking out a male bowerbird in an attempt to capture a first in nature filmmaking: a pair of the birds mating. The team achieves its goal and films the act in its entirety, an event that lasts ... all of five seconds.
These behind-the-scenes stories -- from the crew that spent a year capturing time-lapse imagery of plants growing in an English garden, to the group that spent two weeks sending cameras soaring into trees in order to get just the right shot of millions of monarch butterflies clinging to the branches of Oyamel firs in a Mexican forest -- are as compelling and impressive as the tales of survival in the documentary itself, making "Life" a richer, fuller experience on DVD and Blu-ray.
The box set misses an opportunity to be fully complete, however, in the audio track department. Two versions of "Life" go on sale today in the U.S. -- one that features the David Attenborough narration from the original BBC series, and another with Oprah Winfrey's voiceover, as heard in the Discovery Channel incarnation. Since the Oprah version also comes with a music-only audio track, which allows viewers to watch the animal action with no talking whatsoever, it seems a shame that a third option with Attenborough's insights wasn't included as well. Instead consumers have to choose between one or the other, which means purists (and loyal Brits) will probably go the Attenborough route.
As for the deleted scenes from "Life," they are worth watching but, like some moments in the series, can be somewhat intense. Footage of a leopard seal thrashing around with a bloody, dismembered penguin could be particularly upsetting for some younger viewers. (Translation: Parents, don't show footage of "Life" right after watching "Happy Feet" or "March of the Penguins.") To its credit, this series never shies away from showing us the full circle of life, in all its beautiful, brutal glory. A Disney movie? That's definitely not "Life."