After traveling back 500 million years with this documentary, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has learned that the Cambrian Period looked something like the Special Editions of the Star Wars Trilogy.
Before humans…Before dinosaurs…Our planet was ruled by monsters
Walking with Monsters has garnered a sterling reputation across the pond. Kenneth Branagh narrates scientific factoids while detailed CGI creations re-enact the vision some scientists have of our planet 530 million years ago. Our tale begins when the lifeless ball of sludge we now call Earth met a small planet called Thea in a spectacular crash. Just like the "Hey, you put your chocolate in my peanut butter" breakthrough, this ancient merger brought something new and special: life.
Walking with Monsters (the third in a series of BBC documentaries on prehistoric life) takes us from the aquatic beasts of the Cambrian Period (fish, arthropods, and amphibians) through the giant insects and arachnids of the Carboniferous period. We end with the heat-blasted Permian period of 250 million years ago, where the expression "dust and bones" takes on new meaning. While giant reptiles adapt to laying hard-shelled eggs, little mammals (who would become us) scamper about underfoot.
I was less enthralled with Walking with Monsters than the tide of popular opinion tells me I should have been, and the reason is simple: I had Special Edition flashbacks. "Special Edition" refers to the reworked Star Wars trilogy, newly infested (in gleaming CGI) with cutesy critters of every possible description. Flashbacks…well, those are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. How did this documentary evoke such dark feelings of anger, fear, and aggression?
Part of the reason is that Walking with Monsters presents very impressive CGI. Our digitally constructed fore-fauna have heaving hides, gnashing teeth, expressive eyes, and other touches. These creations are merged into digitally scrubbed footage of actual location shots. The sheer level of detail speaks highly of the professionalism involved with this project. It reminded me of the best movie special effects—particularly the loathsome creatures digitally added to Star Wars.
The reason this high level of quality turned me off is because it emphasized the corny behavior of the creatures. Amphibians snarl at the camera like enraged lions. Weird hunter beasts slobber and butt their heads into the "camera" lens, making it "shake." In short, these imaginary creations mug for the nonexistent camera like prehistoric prima donnas. Each moment of overacting caused me to question the scientific validity of the creatures. How do we know that amphibians snarled? Did the giant scorpions really rattle and chitter like Fred Sanford's truck while stalking their prey? How did giant fish make scary keening noises when they erupted onto the beach to hunt lizards? Why did the diplodyranowhatsit beat its chest like King Kong after the kill? As these questions mounted, it grew more and more difficult to tease founded scientific conjecture from sensationalism.
This tri-part documentary covers too much ground too quickly. Millions of years go by in a "time lapse" animation that turns a small lizard into a bigger one, or changes fish fins to tiny arms. The idea is neat, but it isn't as effective as it should be. By the end of the ninety minutes, I became convinced that this documentary was an impressively realized but wholly sensationalized rough sketch. There is undoubtedly exciting scientific postulation buried in the images, but it's hard to tell what is real and what is entertainment. As an example, the included featurette mentions that when the documentarians were using animatronic heads to munch on ferns, it became clear that the creatures probably ate from the side and scraped leaves throught their teeth. Now that is interesting, and details like that would have enhanced the actual feature.
This featurette, "Trilogy of Life: The Making of the Series," suffers much of the unabashed quality of the feature itself. They believe it is the best documentary on the origins of life ever told. That's well and good, but they give short shrift to addressing the scientific outcry against some of their choices. Their defense is essentially "the viewers aren't idiots; they know this is a jazzed up speculation." Maybe so, but humor us next time and say so up front. I will grant them some credit, though: the making-of focuses on the previous two installments, Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, and the footage from those is twice as breathtaking and more interesting than anything in this volume. Maybe if I'd seen one of the other two features, I'd be on board with this one.
Even though the animation is light-years beyond that in The Shape of Life, I found the latter far more beautiful, honest, and compelling. Maybe I just like more decorum and information in my documentaries. If you prefer entertaining to staid and don't mind a bit of dramatic license in your science, Walking with Monsters might just be your cup of tea. It certainly has strong positive buzz in its favor.
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Studio: BBC Video
• Trilogy of Life: The Making of the Series
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