“Planet Earth” is a nature documentary series produced by the BBC and later aired on the Discovery Channel in the United States and on other channels around the world. Each of the 11 episodes in the series feature a different habitat on Earth. The following critique is based on the first three episodes: “From Pole to Pole,” “Mountains,” and “Fresh Water.”
“Planet Earth” is quite an extraordinary look at our Earth. This environmental documentary has spectacular and powerful visuals accompanied by engaging narration. There are no sit-down interviews or man-on-the-street reactions. Instead, amazing cinematography overwhelms the senses, a solid example of the age-old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Indeed, the strength of the visuals, both in terms of camera work and footage content, are the core of this documentary series. The steady images and clear sounds, captured thanks to high-tech equipment, envelopes the viewer in each of these habitats. I had to watch “Planet Earth” on the 17-inch screen of my laptop, but imagine how the experience would multiple a hundred-fold if one were to watch it in a theatre, or even better, on an IMAX screen. Oftentimes the amazing visuals take you with it, down the waterfall or with the flock of geese. In “From Pole to Pole,” the combination of aerial views and ground shots allow for an in situ experience of wild dog hunts and elephant migrations. The high-elevation shots of summits and underwater footage of the creatures of the deep seas in the second and third episodes, respectively, bring viewers to off-limits arenas.
The magnitude of this project and the amazing results called for effective and determined producers, which in this case were also the documentary’s directors. There was a huge role for producers here, from getting all the permissions to film in the various countries to the logistics of keeping the crew safe to figuring out how to adequately film the various habitats and truly capture the animals in their natural states. And although there was an executive producer (Alastair Fothergill), the various episodes had different producers, so there are slight differences in the creative styles.
There is a particularly frequent use of time lapse in the first episode, which although perhaps important for showing change, made the film seem more fictional. Often, such as when the trees greened and withered, it looked like it was computerized time lapse rather than a time lapse of actual footage, which for me made it seem less credible. After all, who wants to see a computerized nature? My major issue with the editing is the jump cuts. There is a lack of transitions in the topics. Yes, there is an abundance of topics to cover on our Earth, but the sudden departure from the topics leaves one hanging and asking of what happened to those cubs or piranhas, and wondering how that connects with the new topic at hand.
Despite these pitfalls in editing, most of the editing in the documentary serves to create the story. The choices of footage, in conjunction with the narration, serves to make the documentary more entertaining, rather than just including the facts one may learn in a natural history class. For example the editors’ decision in keeping the long scene on the caribou chase in the first episode created suspense and drama. Will the caribou falter or will the wolf give up? There are also amusing parts like the odd behaviors of various species of birds of paradise that add a comical aspect to the film. Scenes like when the shark rises out of the water and captures a seal right as the audience was being told how summer was a great time and the seals were mating give an element of surprise. The slowing down of this scene also sensationalizes and dramatizes this occurrence of nature, which in my opinion detracts from the film’s objective look at the world. On the other hand, such subjectivity is balanced out by the editors’ choice to show nature as it runs its course and not criminalize the predators with menacing music or negative depiction in the narration, for it is simply survival.
Sound also plays a very important role in this film. Sounds of nature like boiling lava or the calls of baboons again remind us of the wonders of the world, while background music, sometimes mixed in with narration or natural sounds, allows for an entertainment feel to the documentary. There are epic themes for triumphs, quirky ones for comical behaviors, ballads for intimate scenes, and quick rhythms for chases. By and large I felt the musical choices were appropriate and added value to the footage. The one time I was sorely and quite obviously disappointed in these first three episodes was when folk Japanese music was used with footage on salamanders simply because the amphibians lived in the seas off the coast of Japan. Irrelevant.
The other aspect of sound in this film is of course the spoken word. The narration is done by David Attenborough, whose voice is very storytelling-like. It is steady and entertaining, authoritative but not authoritarian. It’s not quite a Morgan Freeman “God” voice, but rather one often associated with an old professor at Oxford or Cambridge. The narration itself is very well-written. It is in the storytelling tradition, allowing for both hard facts and playful depictions, such as when the polar bears were described as “tobogganing down the slope.” There were also conflicts in nature that were explained, of prey vs. predator, weather vs. organisms, environmental dangers vs. the survival of animals. One noted issue with the narration, however, is that sometimes there is repetition. The description of the grizzlies coming out of their den and the mother needing to leave the slopes in order to get food to feed the cubs in the “Mountains” episode sounded nearly verbatim to the polar bear description in the first episode. In general, however, the narration is relevant and well-paced, giving viewers both knowledge and the time to reflect.
“Planet Earth” truly brings the world to our TV screens. The occasional use of satellite images of the earth gives it an even more global, ethereal feel and a universal appeal. This documentary was truly a lens to the wonders of our world.
Here’s a link to a trailer: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8373557567657646520#