BBC Video // 2011 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // May 2nd, 2011
"This landmark eight-part series is a breathtaking celebration of the amazing, complex, profound, and sometimes challenging relationship between humankind and nature."
BBC Earth has separated its products from the plethora of nature documentaries that have proliferated this HD era. Both Planet Earth and Life explored the various regions and eco systems of our planet and how animals and insects have adapted to them. The format was simple yet the results were astoundingly well produced and highly engaging but also educational. It made me feel depressed thinking back on all the horribly dry and boring nature documentaries we watched back in school. Whoever said these things can't be educational and fun?
Luckily, BBC American is back with Human Planet, a series that retains the format of the previous two series but instead chooses to focus on how us humans have adapted, struggled and thrived in the various regions of the planet. The show is humbling, astounding and incredibly thought provoking...many times all at once. What gives this show its true emotional wallop is the subject matter: exploring the human condition through the perspective of many cultures, ideologies and regions. However, the thread connecting these various people and their struggles is the spirit of the human will to survive. It's very rich subject matter to explore, and while volumes and volumes of philosophical texts could never scratch the surface, let alone a miniseries, Human Planet swings for the fences and constantly knocks it out of the park.
The series itself is split into eight episodes that focus on specific regions of the world, much in the same format as both Planet Earth and Life, except these episodes have flashy little sub-titles.
* "Oceans: Into The Blue"
This first episode up in the series sets the bar in terms of the richness and high quality nature of the material for the rest of the series. Detailing certain societies and cultures that have staked out a living on the ocean, one almost wishes this episode would have been stretched into two, taking in mind how much of our planet is covered in that wet stuff. The most compelling segment in this episode, to give you a taste of what to expect, details a group of Filipino fisherman who must dive deeper and deeper each year to catch a profit because of the depletion of fish in and around the Philippines. Now of course these guys don't have high tech scuba equipment. Instead, they use a jerry-rigged compressor hooked up to thousands upon thousands of feet of low quality plastic tubing to give these divers some diesel-enriched oxygen as they dive all the way down to the sea-floor. A single cinch or rupture in the tubbing spells death.
* "Desert: Life in the Furnace"
Now this is the episode that truly made me feel like a piece of crap for all the times I complained about that New England Summer heat, or bitched to the cashier about a $2 bottle of water. This episode highlights the struggles of many cultures around the globe and their quest to find water and carve out a living in some of the most unforgiving regions of the world. This ranges from people using large nets to trap moisture much in the same way as cactus moss, to a group of women marching their camels miles upon miles to a watering hole with the threat of getting lost in the shifting sands constantly weighing on their shoulders. It's a truly humbling episode that marks beautifully that overarching thread of human struggle and will to survive that permeates this series.
* "Arctic: Life in the Deep Freeze"
Yes, more than crazy scientists and alien mutant dogs live in the arctic areas of the world. To say that these regions are the most unforgiving and harshest landscapes on the plant would be an understatement. With months upon months of complete isolation, deadly cold temperatures and virtually nothing in the way of crops, this episode explores in great detail the struggle of people in search of food while constantly combating the environment and its natural predators. One of the more compelling segments follows a group of Inuit brothers on the hunt for narwhals (yes, that thing from Futurama: Bender's Big Score) because of the insanely high and desperately needed sources of vitamin C found within their skin. We follow this group of brothers and their sled-dogs as they attempt to kill the skittish unicorn-seal-thing while also having to constantly be aware of the shifting and melting pack ice. One bad decision and they could find themselves adrift on an ice float or swallowed whole by water that kills in minutes. Kind of makes you feel bad for all those times you bitched about having to shovel every time the plow guy comes by.
* "Jungles: People of the Trees"
Now, I am deathly afraid of snakes, spiders and anything that's creepy and crawly. So walking into a dense jungle would probably have me running out the other side screaming like Janet Leigh or Kate Capshaw in a matter of moments. When I started this episode I figured I would be curled up in a little ball half way through because of the necessary quota of sharp fanged death beasts that always accompany any show about the jungle. And yes, there is a segment showing a group of children hunting Goliath Tarantulas and roasting them like marshmallows, but, thankfully, much of this episode details a jungle tribe and their proclivity towards building houses way up high in massive trees. Oh damn, I'm deathly afraid of heights too.
This segment is utterly astounding as we watch this tribe haul up building material hundreds upon hundreds of feet in the air to build a house that spits in the face of God. The higher the house, the bigger the boasting rights. You're also far too high for those Lovecraftian horrors to get you, so that's a plus. This culture has evolved and adapted so well to their environment that they climb and balance on top of trees as if they were born there. And I guess, in a way, they were. It's another example of what separates Human Planet among other, similar shows in the way that it wants to explore both how cultures adapt to their surroundings, but also what compels them to stay and thrive. Part a will to survive, part massive balls of steel and a large chunk of maintaining and heralding tradition in the face of cultural erosion brought about by modernization and globalization. These are but a few motifs running throughout both the episode and the series as a whole.
* "Mountains: Life in thin Air"
This series, much more than both Planet Earth and Life, shows the audience graphic and, at times, unsettling imagery of animal death. While some may decry this as sadistic, that would overlook the fact that this is natural human life we're talking about here, the circle of life at its most humbling. Nowhere is this motif more illustrated than in this episode, even more specifically within a segment that details a high altitude township that is considered one of the highest in the world. Here, when people die, they can not be burned because there is little oxygen and even less wood, and can not be buried because their religion forbids it. Instead, this culture carries out a "sky burial." It is a ritual that is not only considered holy but is also shockingly touching. To describe it would limit the scenes effectiveness, but it highlights this series' desire to explore the nature of human existence in an unflinching and objective manner. It is this desire for truth and the unbiased that fuels the intellectual and engaging nature of the show.
* "Grasslands: The Roots of Power"
This episode details a group of African hunters who have evolved past trying to hunt and kill outperforming wildebeest. Instead, they wait for a pride of lions to take one down and then swagger in with massive amounts of Kurt Russell-style bravado to steal the kill away from them. Another segment details a time of year when an Asian grassland becomes flooded with both water and deadly poisonous snakes and the fisherman who toils to catch hundreds upon hundreds of them for the equivalent of around 100 American dollars a week. Oh yeah, and his kids make bracelets out of the snakes before they're sold on the market. I once ran at the sight of a garter snake.
* "Rivers: Friend and Foe"
How people have adapted with or to massive rivers is detailed here. From Canada to India, this episode details not only those that make a living from bountiful river sources but it also highlights the devastating impact that rivers can have on an environment. From building massive feats of human engineering to span treacherous expanses of water to the ability of rivers to swallow whole villages whole, this episode has a diverse reach both in its subject matter and scope.
* "Cities: Surviving the Urban Jungle"
Last but not least is the episode on cities and a massive change of pace for the series considering that much of it has detailed isolated or Third World cultures. This episode details how nature and cities both coexist and also threaten each other. From the destruction of natural habitats to fuel modernization, to the existence of pests such as rats and bedbugs that seek to feed on your flesh, this episode contains the kernel of Human Planet's environmental bend. It's a little unfortunate because the message does get a little heavy handed at times as the episode comes to a close, especially considering how understated and effective the message had been thus far as an undercurrent in the series. But ultimately it is a needed message. It's just shame that they bungle it just slightly by stepping a little too far up on the soapbox.
As this review goes on you probably notice a recurring motif with comparing the struggles of these cultures with my own mundane, capitalistic life in rural New England. And really, that's what this show comes down to and is what makes it so humbling. It's almost impossible not to contrast your own struggles and desires with the people detailed in Human Planet because the series compels you to see a side of the human condition and nature that we are oblivious to most days of the week. Though the series details vastly divergent and varied cultures, there is still an underlying and unifying sense of humanism throughout the show to remind us that we are in fact the human race. This ability to educate, inform, entertain, enlighten and humble is a testament to the quality of this series and the care, passion and desire to inspire that went into its creation on all fronts. Human Planet is truly magnificent.
Strangely, and unlike both Planet Earth and Life which had almost all episodes in a 1080p HD video transfer, this presentation instead has a 1080i HD video transfer. While this is not a huge issue, the image falls short of what we've already seen from BBC Earth...just barely. There's a certain softness, a very subtle one, in certain episodes and specifically in certain scenes. It's a small gripe considering that the image is still incredibly sharp and does an amazing job at reproducing the wide range of vivid colors and textures of the series as a whole. You know what to expect from the picture quality of these shows. I could talk all day about how you can make out freckles and individual bird feathers, or each grain of sand in a dune, but I'd just be stringing together a bunch of adjectives to state something that's already a given.
The English DTS-HD Master 5.1 track heightens the onscreen image with a very faithful recreation of these environmental soundscapes. It's truly a stellar and highly immersive track. It's also the sexiest you'll probably ever hear John Hurt (Alien) sound.
The only special features are 10 minute "Behind The Lens" segments that automatically proceed each episode with an additional two as actual special features. These features are very informative and interesting as they detail the behind-the-scenes work needed to capture some of these segments and the difficulty in getting certain shots just right. Some may gripe about a lack of bonus material, but these ten minute segments are all that's really wanted or desired from a series that's already laid it all out on the table with the episodes themselves.
Human Planet is a stellar series that's been given an even more impressive Blu-ray release. For anyone looking for an engaging and informative documentary series that's also entertaining, this is certainly it.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site
* Facebook Page
* Video: Trailer