Gorgeous 11-part series captures the beauty and pathology of nature

by Mary McNamara

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

19 March 2010


“Life,” like its predecessor “Planet Earth,” is the reason flat screens, Blu-ray and high-definition TV were invented. No doubt the 11-part series, with its astonishingly intimate footage of A-Z species engaged in every sort of behavior, will play well on any screen. But its color, scope, detail and gorgeousness cry out for a home theater situation, one of those screens so big you can watch it from the street.

Like “Planet Earth, “Life” is a hands-across-the-water project between Discovery and the BBC. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who joins Morgan Freeman in the race for Most Recognizable and Instantly Trusted American Voice, it opens with a “Challenges of Life,” a wide-ranging overview exploring the many facets of survival, which essentially boil down to hiding, hunting, mating and giving birth. (Think TLC meets Bravo with a lot less drinking, ultimatums and whining.)

Subsequent episodes break down by species — “Birds,” “Plants,” “Reptiles and Amphibians” — as well as broader groupings — “Creatures of the Deep,” “Hunters and Hunted.”

Dazzling and precise, the imagery of “Life” offers us the universe in a raindrop or, more aptly, evolution in a chameleon’s tongue and the trip-wires of the Venus flytrap. Stalking and slaughter, always a keystone of any good nature film, becomes a primer of ingenuity and partnership — cheetah brothers, “mudringing” dolphins, pods of orca killer whales patrolling the seas in deadly formation — all captured in mesmerizing detail.

In the “Reptiles and Amphibians” episode, the patient stalking and poisoning of a water buffalo by a group of Komodo dragons is nature at its most pathological — watching the dragons lazily eyeing their stumbling and desperate victim, it’s difficult not to believe they’re enjoying themselves.

Though the narration is minimal and, with Winfrey’s help, a nice balance of science and sentiment, it’s impossible not to anthropomorphize. In the first episode, the mini-section on motherhood leaves the mind reeling — what is the bottom line of procreation? And how do human mothers compare, dedication-wise, with that of a strawberry dart frog or giant octopus? Answer: not well — and only the most hard-hearted among us could remain dry-eyed while witnessing the sacrifice of the female octopus.

So that’s what “Life” can do: make one weep over the fate of a species once relegated to nightmares and science fiction.

There are, not surprisingly, many cinematic firsts here, including the Komodo dragon sequence, a humpback whale mating battle and the survival tactics of a tiny but resilient pebble toad. Watching as the toad eludes a hungry tarantula by falling and bouncing endlessly down a cliff, certain questions emerge. Is this the fall of a single toad, or were retakes (and possibly a stunt toad) involved? How many cameras were involved and how did they know where to place the cameras? A “Making of” episode ends the series, so we’ll just have to wait.


//Mixed media