[31 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If we are to believe the ecologists and global warming doomsayers, Planet Earth is living on very borrowed time indeed. It seems like, every other day, a new portent of possible Armageddon comes screeching down the mass media pipeline. While there’s no doubt we live in perilous times, our selfish sense of entitlement resulting in the systematic destruction of our natural resources, the opposition argues that nature is resilient. With lumbering heart attack logic, they figure what doesn’t kill it will only make it stronger. Sadly, that’s just not the case, as the brilliant BBC documentary on the subject clearly demonstrated. Repackaged by Disneynature into a dazzling 90 minute motion picture microcosm, the images argue for what’s at stake, and why we’re foolish to believe it can fend for itself.
Earth attempts to give narrative structure to what was, originally, a sprawling epic adventure. It takes the story of a mother polar bear and her two cubs, a pack of elephants, and a baby humpback whale and her parent, and places them with a setting of substantial wildlife wonder. There are sequences here that will shock you with their beauty. There are also moments that will move you with their blatantly manipulative tug. This is not to say that Earth purposely plays on our sympathies to gain our attention, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing an animal suffer, or watching as a predator picks out and takes down its prey. Some of the images are burned into out collective memory, a cheetah chasing a gazelle part of any natural order lexicon. But thanks to the usual approaches taken by the BBC photographers, what could have been rote becomes undeniable brilliant.
Up front, it has to be said that “streamlining” the storylines here to serve a March with the Penguins like purpose feels a bit disingenuous, but Disneynature definitely knows how to tap into an audience’s inner guilt. With James Earl Jones intoning the narratives often dire consequences (he replaced Patrick Stewart who gave the UK version its gravitas) we instantly sympathize with the various everyday events that occur as part of basic animal instinct. Thanks to the awe-inspiring visuals, including aerial footage unmatched in the history of the genre, we get God’s own point of view on the proceeds, a presence lording over the landscape while creation does its difficult, often deadly dance.
The mere scope of Earth is without measure - and it was purposefully planned that way. In the interesting extras that come with the new Blu-ray release, we learn that this was a mammoth undertaking. It was more than four years in the filming with literally hundreds of cameramen and videographers roaming every continent on the planet. As the extent to which some shots were achieved - swimming in whale-filled waters, circling packs of caribou in a two person hot air balloon - is explained and illustrated, we recognize the magnitude of such an endeavor. Indeed, even in this truncated form, Earth offers a sensational summary of our interstellar home that ridiculous in its rarity and refinement. As a result, the cloying sense to some of the storytelling is all but forgiven.
In a work with dozens of defining moments, a few still stand out - the bears making their way, semi-successfully, across a quickly thawing ice field, flocks of birds blanketing the sky with their immense numbers, lions attacking a big bull elephant, monkeys making their way through a shallow rain forest bayou. Indeed, at every turn, Earth finds a way to stun you with the ways of wildlife. Sure, there are some horrific sights as well, especially when a group of sea lions are set upon by a pack of ravenous sharks, but with the help of Jones and a relatively blood free framework, our well founded fears are calmed.
If Earth has a downside, and it rarely does from a feature standpoint, its size. No, not the immensity of the enterprise or the breadth of material covered. When you come to learn that this is merely the cinematic tip of the iceberg, and hour and a half of a more than a dozen hours of material, you yearn for what’s missing. You wonder what other elements directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield had in store and which one’s Disneynature sought to exploit. As for the company’s continuing concern in the area, Earth Day 2010 will see them release Oceans, a similarly styled effort about the bodies that take up over 75% of the planet’s surface. Helmed by French filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud it promises to open our eyes to the unseen world sitting just below the water’s welcoming surface.
Borrowed or not, contrived or completely organic, Earth still manages to inspire. It takes the standard visuals that have defined our view of Mother Nature and reinvigorates them with new technology and fresh perspectives. The Blu-ray is absolutely jaw-dropping, the 1080p 1.78:1 high definition transfer capturing the flawlessly executed pictures perfectly. In fact, it looks so faultless that you have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie, and not just gazing out of some celestial window, watching the world go by.
Though it may be much for little kids and will give parents pause over the amount of “realism” involved, Earth remains a powerful, highly recommended experience. As entertaining as it is alarming, this defining documentary will have you wondering about the fate of this complex third rock from the sun. It would be a shame to lose something as undeniable special as this.