What is life? At its most basic level, it is a state of being alive at a cellular level or greater. And yet, we live on a world teeming with life in such abundance and diversity of form that it is so much more than that. Ultimately, I think that is what the most recent production from the BBC’s Natural History Unit is about.
Life was four years in the making from the producers of Planet Earth and The Blue Planet and takes us on another amazing journey around the world capturing on film the dazzling diversity of life we are blessed with on Earth. As with their previous productions, these filmmakers have provided us with the shock and awe of the natural world and shown us things we may never see otherwise.
Characterized by shots in real time and slow motion, we get to see creatures, alone and in groups, doing what they do best – surviving and perpetuating their species. From the tale of the gobie fish in Hawaii climbing waterfalls to spawn in perfect pools at the top of rocky cliffs and flying fish to the cycle of hunter and hunted played out in countless environments each day we are presented with crystal clear imagery that mesmerizes with almost every frame.
Originally broadcast at the end of 2009, the ten episodes of Life each focus on a unique aspect of living organisms on Earth.
The series starts with the “Challenges of Life” where the filmmakers present examples of how plants, animals, and insects manage to find enough food to eat and find ways to reproduce to ensure the continuation of their kind. Amazing footage of what a small mother strawberry poison dart frog does to keep her tadpoles safe in the rainforest canopy and the Pacific giant octopus sacrificing herself so that her children may survive show the lengths to which some creatures will go to protect and care for their young.
Life then walks through an episode for each major group of creatures on the planet – “Reptiles and Amphibians,” “Mammals,” “Fish,” “Birds,” and “Insects.” Each episode shows the cycles inherent in all living things – from the groupers spreading fertilized eggs in clouds beneath the waves that get eaten by predators to the damselfly’s chance to lay eggs interrupted by a leaping frog. Opportunities abound for all creatures in the food chain to do their part to survive.
The series then shifts to “Creatures of the Deep,” where photographers managed to show a seal carcass beneath the Antarctic ice provides food for urchins, sea stars, and nemertean worms proving that creatures big and small will find ways to eat and reproduce even in the harshest conditions. The amazing footage of hundreds of thousands of spider crabs moulting in the shallows off South Australia was amazingly bizarre, yet memorable.
In “Plants” we see the other side of the equation, from the forest floor to the canopy, the ocean floor to the desert – flora has also found ways to adapt and thrive in inhospitable places. The exposed roots of the Epiphytes in the rain forest canopy trapping water and leaves for nutrients provide a stark contrast to the Bristlecone pine trees that can live up to 5,000 years with a six-week growing season above 9800 feet.
And lastly, the series focuses on the “Primates” – our distant cousins on the evolutionary chart. These intelligent, social creatures – from baboons and macaques using troop dynamics and bloodlines to determine the outcome of disputes to the White-faced capuchins using rocks to break open clams for dinner. It’s impossible not to see similarities to the human condition that we experience every day.
Though we weren’t able to catch each episode as it aired in the Discovery Channel, we were excited to see the series become available on DVD recently. It’s another amazing achievement for the BBC Natural History Unit and their dedicated, amazing photography teams scattered around the globe.
Each episode on the DVD was accompanied by a “Life on Location” special feature, which documented some of the challenges the film crews faced while trying to get footage for the production. Though short, each provided a glimpse into the commitment necessary to become a world-class nature photographer.
My one complaint with the series is that they chose Oprah Winfrey to do the narration this time. Though Oprah is a force to be reckoned with in her own right and the scripts were well written, her voice has an interesting tendency to put me to sleep. The visuals were stunning and I wanted to hear the stories, but found her narration monotone enough to make it difficult to watch.
And as if they wanted to rub in how boring Oprah’s narration was, they had David Attenborough narrate the extras for each episode that describe the challenges faced by the crews sent out to get the footage. Though nearing retirement, Attenborough’s voice seemed infused with energy and life compared to listening to Oprah.
Though tempted to use the “Music Only” viewing option, we managed to get through Oprah’s droning and enjoy the entire series at my house. Hopefully they will find better narrators in the future. Jim Carrey would be a good choice (he recently narrated Under the Sea for IMAX) and James Earl Jones would also be great.
Don’t let Oprah stop you from enjoying Life on DVD. It’s another amazing documentary series from the BBC that you won’t want to miss. Hopefully they’ll have a better narrator for the upcoming Frozen Planet series to air in 2012 on the Discovery Channel!
Article first published as DVD Review: Life (2010) on Blogcritics.
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