BBC Video // 2006 // 528 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 24th, 2007
...As you've never seen it before.
Simply put, Planet Earth is the new gold standard in nature documentaries. Produced by Alastair Fothergill and the BBC's Natural History Unit as a follow-up to their universally lauded oceanographic series, The Blue Planet, this 11-part examination of the majestic beauty of Earth's remotest landscapes and rarest species is guaranteed to take your breath away. The show offers a whirlwind tour of the planet, sweeping viewers in grand aerial shots from artic tundra to craggy mountains to surging deserts to rainforests and oceans teeming with life. Along the way we get a brand new glimpse of the life-and-death struggle unfolding daily in the wilds of our globe.
Planet Earth originally aired on BBC One and BBC HD in 2006, but recently found its way to America via Discovery HD Theater and the vanilla Discovery Channel. Episodes were slightly redacted for American broadcast, and the voice-over narration by Sir David Attenborough (environmentalist, BBC Two honcho, and brother of actor/director Lord Richard Attenborough) was replaced with a track by Sigourney Weaver (Alien). There's little substantive difference between the two narrations. Weaver's voice is more familiar to American audiences, and her script focuses slightly more on the innovative new technology used to capture the show's unique vistas and perspectives on wild animal life. Planet Earth: The Complete Series presents the BBC version of the show, restoring Attenborough's narration and the order in which the episodes aired in Britain. The 11 episodes are spread over the first four platters of this five-disc set as follows:
* "From Pole to Pole"
* "Fresh Water"
* "Ice Worlds"
* "Great Plains"
* "Shallow Seas"
* "Seasonal Forests"
* "Ocean Deep"
(Note: the episodes aired in the following order on Discovery HD Theater: "Pole to Pole," "Mountains," "Deep Ocean," "Deserts," "Ice Worlds," "Shallow Seas," "Great Plains," "Jungles," "Freshwater," "Forests," and "Caves.")
Planet Earth's first episode "From Pole to Pole" provides an overview of the entire series. It whisks us from the Antarctic to the North Pole, and a variety of climes in between, without simply repackaging footage from subsequent episodes. We're given a glimpse into the lives of Emperor Penguins, Polar Bears, Great White Sharks hunting sea lions in breeding season, the nearly extinct Amur Leopard of Eastern Russia, a massive herd of caribou in North America, a pack of wild dogs on the hunt in Africa, and other rare and fascinating species. As the episode titles indicate, the remainder of the series focuses on specific ecosystems and the wildlife they nurture. Each episode is a glory of high-definition cinematography that utilizes new technology to capture vivid imagery from distances that give us a window into animal behavior sans the disruptive influence of camera crews tromping through their habitats.
Like all nature series, each episode of Planet Earth draws its dramatic intensity from the relentless struggle between life and death -- and the show is, indeed, dramatically intense. Placid shots of achingly beautiful flora, fauna, and sprawling landscapes are juxtaposed against the never-ending contest between predator and prey. Planet Earth is absolutely riveting, but not for the feint of heart. The most dramatic and controversial of its violent set pieces is the "Great Plains" episode's difficult to watch encounter between an elephant and a pride of 30 hungry lions. Shot in the dead of night, the sequence delivers a palpable sense of terror and raw savagery that evokes equal parts sympathy and fascination. Best of all, the show's genuine drama doesn't rely on anthropomorphizing the animals. It simply presents them as they are.
It is the astounding breadth, scope, and depth of Planet Earth that
makes it revolutionary.
"Ocean Deep," "Ice Worlds," "Jungles," or any of the other episodes have the smarts and substance to hold their own against similarly themed Discovery Channel documentaries. That each of the unique episodes is woven into a sprawling but cohesive 11-part whole makes Planet Earth a unique and special snapshot of the planet on which we live. Combine that with the show's innovative and surprisingly intimate cinematography and one need only watch a few minutes of the first episode to realize that nature documentaries will never be the same.
The 480p resolution of the image on this standard DVD presentation of Planet Earth represents a significant downgrade from the 1080i presentation on Discovery HD Theater, but the show still looks amazing. Detail suffers most noticeably in spectacular aerial shots of massive flocks of migrating birds or herds of caribou. Elsewhere, the difference in quality is less dramatic. Accepting the limitations of standard DVD (there was a time when I couldn't imagine typing that phrase), the transfer is top-notch. The magnificent cinematography makes maximum use of the DVD format's resolution, offering eye-popping color and the best detail possible in a veritable orgy of astoundingly gorgeous nature shots.
Audio is a full-bodied Dolby 5.1 track that seats Attenborough's voice-over narration in the front soundstage, while allowing the lush orchestral score by George Fenton and Sam Watts to completely envelop the viewer.
In terms of supplements, each episode of the series is followed by a 10-minute featurette detailing the production of one of the episode's segments. Though brief, the pieces provide a concrete sense of the new technologies used to deliver the show's stunning views of nature, as well as the trials suffered by the various crews trying to capture rare footage in remote parts of the world. My only complaint (and it's a minor one) is that the featurettes are accessible through the chapter menus of each episode, but not indexed in a special features menu.
A fifth disc contains a follow-up series called Planet Earth: The Future. Split into three episodes -- "Saving Species," "Into the Wilderness," and "Living Together" -- the whole show runs approximately two and a half hours in length. It assembles a group of environmental talking heads to discuss the ecological ramifications at the heart of Planet Earth. It should come as no surprise that the show's politically-charged feet are firmly planted in the environmentalist camp, but a reasonable attempt is made at presenting a broad swath of views on the subject of preserving and caring for the environment. Experts advocate a wide range of solutions from a careful management of natural resources that allows for more responsible industrial development in the Third World, to radical limits on market capitalism and various forms of suppressing the expansion of human populations. A Bush administration spokesman is allowed air time to make the case that environmentalists' claims are overstated, and that the movement is largely a public fund cash grab. As the lone anti-environmental voice, his views are outweighed by the wealth of talking heads who disagree with him, but the show treats him with a neutral tone. The bottom line is that if you hate tree-hugging hippies, you'll likely hate Planet Earth: The Future, but if your sentiments land anywhere within the pro-environmental movement political spectrum, you'll find someone to agree with in Planet Earth: The Future.
If you haven't caught my drift by now, let me be blunt: Planet Earth: The Complete Series is the most impressive nature show I've ever laid eyes on. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a must-see.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 528 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes
* Planet Earth: The Future, Feature-Length Companion Series
* Official Site (BBC)
* Official Site (Discovery Channel)