BBC Video // 2009 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 10th, 2009
Why Darwin's theory is more important now than ever.
David Attenborough may not be a household name in America, but he's certainly a well-known figure in Great Britain. For decades, Attenborough has been hosting, narrating, writing and producing nature-themed television specials, playing a major role in series such as Planet Earth, Life on Earth, and The Blue Planet. His latest hour-long special is the humble yet absorbing Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, which takes a look at the life and work of Mr. Darwin.
I only mention Attenborough's celebrity because some American viewers may be puzzled by the fact that the documentary focuses as much on Attenborough as it does on Darwin. Those who are familiar with the man's work will realize that he isn't simply an objective talking head, attempting to draw attention to his subject rather than to himself. He's a distinct and well-known figure whose opinions and personal anecdotes are essential to who he is. Though the special might have been more accurately titled, David Attenborough: His Personal Relationship with the Theories of Charles Darwin, and his General Opinion of Those Theories, it's nonetheless an engaging viewing experience.
The material presented in this hour-long special will not be anything new for those who know anything at all about Darwin or natural selection. What Attenborough shares is essentially Evolution 101, covering the basic arguments for Darwin's theory in a charming and accessible fashion. Attenborough concisely touches upon such much-discussed subjects as the evolution of the human eye, the marvelous platypus, carbon dating, and so on, but what really makes an impression is Attenborough's sheer love for his subject matter. He is clearly a man enthralled with the elegance of evolution, and his genuine passion for it prevents the documentary from ever feeling terribly clinical.
As for Darwin himself, only the most essential biographical info and background material is addressed. We hear bits and pieces about his early expeditions, we learn of his complicated relationship with his deeply religious wife, and we hear about the efforts he put into ensuring that On the Origin of Species was published. This material almost feels secondary; an obligatory inclusion to what is essentially a tribute to Darwin's work rather than an analysis of it. Attenborough includes a handful of still images, but prefers to keep the documentary moving with colorful footage of nature (both new material and clips from some of Attenborough's previous documentaries).
Another aspect of the documentary that may catch American viewers off-guard is the unquestioning manner in which it approaches the subject of evolution (dismissing the idea of supernatural involvement without much hesitation). In the United States, nature programming often has to treat evolution as a controversial and much-debated idea because, well, only 40% or so of the American public actually believes in evolution. That figure is considerably lower than in most parts of the world, including the United Kingdom (where well over 70% of the population embraces evolution). Creationists (or Anti-Evolutionists, or proponents of Intelligent Design, or whatever) may not be too happy with the dismissive way in which Attenborough treats their arguments, but then this documentary is not the place for such debate. This documentary is made by a man who deeply admires Darwin and who is attempting to convince his viewers to share that admiration. On that level, it works quite well, presenting the essence of Darwin's theory in a smart, accessible, and persuasive manner.
The documentary looks and sounds excellent, at least when presenting the new footage. There are moments from older documentaries that are a little rough, but that's to be expected. I was particularly impressed with some of the CGI displays used in this documentary, which are generally much more impressive and less cheesy than in many documentaries of this sort. The stereo audio is perfectly adequate, though there's not much to write home about in the audio department (this is a talking heads documentary accompanied by the usual synth-y background music). There's only one extra on the disc, but it's a very substantial one: an additional hour-long documentary called "The Evolution of the Origin of Species." Though a bit less compelling than the main feature, it's a more informational and straightforward look at the creation of Darwin's famous work.
Even if you're familiar with all of the material on this DVD, the passion of the presentation makes it a thoroughly engaging item.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Documentary