BBC Video // 2009 // 484 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 1st, 2010
The spectacular and extraordinary tactics animals and plants have developed to survive and thrive.
Like Planet Earth before it, the BBC/Discovery Channel collaboration Life dispenses with small technical details in favor of presenting massive, breathtaking scope. Enormously ambitious and visually spellbinding, Life is another impressive achievement that's well worth seeing. However, there's an important question you need to consider before you plop down your hard-earned $50: Which narrator do you want to listen to?
The original narrator of the series was David Attenborough, the famed British naturalist who has written, produced and narrated oh-so-many superb nature documentaries over the years. Attenborough's rich voice lends itself well to these documentaries, as his warmly intelligent tones perfectly underscore the images onscreen. Alas, he's much more well-known in Britain than he is in America, so both Planet Earth and Life chose to replace him during American airings of those programs. Planet Earth gave us Sigourney Weaver, who proved a reasonably worthy substitute (though Attenborough's voice was still missed). Life gives us Oprah Winfrey, who proves to be a more problematic choice.
Though Winfrey is the most popular and well-known figure on daytime television (heck, she's one of the most popular and well-known living figures, period), she hasn't exactly been called upon to do loads of narration. Winfrey has many talents, but narrating nature documentaries isn't one of them. Though she proves competent, her voice is considerably less rich and engaging than Attenborough's, as the latter's professorial tones are replaced with Winfrey's overcooked gushing. Winfrey reads her lines as if the series is aimed at young children, providing a "library storyteller" vibe that young ones may find appealing but which grown-ups will probably find tiresome. Making matters even more problematic is the fact that the narration has been re-written for American audiences, cutting out some of the trickier words and adding more cutesy jokes (to put it delicately, it's been "dumbed down"). For me, the American narration severely damaged my enjoyment of the series, and I'm certain that others may feel the same. Even so, I can see how some parents who want to watch the series with their kids may prefer this option, so it is what it is. Just use caution before placing Life in your shopping cart, as the narration can make all the difference in the world between a satisfying viewing experience and a troubling one.
All of that aside (and admittedly, it's a pretty huge issue), the series does offer loads of compelling stuff and is by all means worth seeing regardless of who's speaking over the images. The structure is very similar to Planet Earth, as each episode focuses on a different group of creatures and their struggles to survive (though Planet Earth divided the chapters by habitat...jungles, deserts, oceans, etc...while Life divides the chapters by animal groups: "Birds," "Mammals," "Fish," and so on). Also like Planet Earth, there's a rather remarkable amount of footage depicting animal activity that has never before been captured on camera. Though the running theme of the series is the survival of animals and the celebration of life forms across the planet, it's really just a variation on the Planet Earth idea designed to allow the filmmakers to show as diverse and spellbinding display of beautiful images as possible. Life provides you with a front-row seat to many sights that you will probably never experience in person, but the HD imagery is about as remarkable a substitute as one can imagine.
That's pretty much all you need to know about the series. I could continue with a description of each episode and what specific topics are discussed within that episode, but the whole thing is so fluid and consistent that I don't feel there's a single episode that stands out as being particularly better or worse than any of the others. Basically, your enjoyment of each episode essentially depends on your fondness for the particular type of animals being featured (if you find fish more compelling than monkeys, you'll prefer the "Fish" chapter to the "Primates" chapter). When reviewing a nature documentary, there's always a temptation to simply start rattling off the facts the documentary provides, but I'll refrain from doing so and simply tell you that what Life offers is well worth absorbing.
Need another reason the Attenborough set may be a better option than the Winfrey version? Odds are that it will sport a stronger transfer. While the Warner Bros. Life collection boasts a 1080p transfer, this Discovery version offers a 1080i image. While it looks about as spectacular as one could hope a 1080i transfer to look, it falls just short of being the awe-inspiring knockout it could have been. That said, the image offers exceptional detail, deep blacks, strong shading and allows the vibrant colors to really pop off the screen. This is the sort of programming that justifies the existence of a hi-def format, so it's just a little disappointing that the imagery isn't quite as awe-inspiring as it could have been. Audio is solid, with little emphasis on captured sound and greater emphasis on Winfrey's voice and George Fenton's breathtaking score (every bit as good as his work on Planet Earth). It's not an amazing track, but it gets the job done.
Supplements include making-of featurettes for each episode (these total about 100 minutes combined), a "bonus episode" called "The Making of Life" (42 minutes), and an 18-minute batch of deleted scenes. All of these are well worth a look, particularly the making-of featurettes (which detail how some of the remarkably hard-to-capture images were obtained).
Don't get me wrong, Life is a good program no matter which way you choose to see it. If the Oprah version were the only one available, I would have no hesitation about heartily recommending the set. However, given that the Attenborough version offers better narration delivered by a better narrator and a 1080p transfer, I'd strongly urge viewers to seek out that version instead.
Not guilty, though all the aforementioned caveats need to be noted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 484 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus Episode