[8 December 2013]
Repurposing thousands of hours of footage from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, One Life allows us to spy on creatures great and small in exotic locations on four continents, with the help of costly gadgets and accompanied by the laconic voice of Daniel Craig. Its message, as Craig’s voiceover reminds us at the end, is that we are all “connected.” However, even if we can understand that the future of our planet depends on a multi-species sharing economy, the film doesn’t always match up what it says with what it shows.
Premiering on Nat Geo Wild on 8 December, One Life is a lavish visual spectacle, in the genre of nature documentaries that work to make the invisible visible, allowing the spectator to witness things outside of human vision. A new critter cam puts us amidst a group of elephants on the move; gyro-stabilized aerials display the technical competence of dolphins who get fish to jump into their mouths; super slow-motion enables us to see a Jesus Christ lizard “walking on water” and an elephant shrew outwitting pursuit through clever trail navigation.
But while the film might bring us closer to the animals so that we feel we are flying, running or hunting alongside them, often the technology has an opposite effect: the animals don’t look real. The little shrew is like a cartoon character. The marching crabs in the opening sequence are straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Other creatures would be at home in horror movies: the camera dwells on the chameleon’s tongue, provoking a visceral disgust much like the reptilian monster in Alien; time-lapse photography of a Venus flytrap consuming its lunch is less likely to cultivate green thoughts than plant aversion. The glorious colors and action sequences, which seem genetically closer to CGI than Mother Nature, emphasize the otherness of the animal stars and work against a cinematic experience of immersion.
On the other hand, in completing its transmedia migration from TV to film and back again, One Life offers intimacies of the small screen that generate some odd empathies. The film’s most poignant image is of the afflicted creature in the Venus flytrap. Not since Jeff Goldblum’s embodiment has a fly’s predicament been so moving.
But this sympathy with what’s unlike us is fleeting. More often, the narration works to domesticate all that is wild and strange via an anthropomorphic framework, to make the other the same. Teamwork is commended in scenes with cheetahs, dolphins, and some industrious grasscutter ants that work together as “farmers, architects, and engineers” to build an underground city. Good mothers are celebrated throughout, from a self-sacrificing giant octopus to the strawberry poison arrow frog, described as a “dedicated single mother” who takes her tadpoles via an arduous tree climb to their “private nurseries.” Even “dads” do their bit, if only seeing off challenges to their family (here, a Congo gorilla). We are invited to admire the ingenuity of Capuchin monkeys cracking pine nuts, and their young imitating them “just as human toddlers do.” As the film builds to a crescendo with the emotional music cues provided by George Fenton, Craig notes that we are all looking for “the love of our life” and that all creatures share the overwhelming desire “to foster new life.”
Such anthropomorphism can have productive potential. It is precisely that act of imagining the other’s perspective that moves people to act on behalf of the perceived desires of an animal. Here, though, it is merely a narcissistic projection that subsumes difference and otherness. This is what Kari Weil, in Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?, calls “critical anthropomorphism.” These animals are just like us, if we subscribe to heterosexuality and family values. The trailer packages the film’s high points into a greatest hits compilation that distills its heteronormative focus: couples of all sorts set out on their epic teleological journey to find love and have babies.
Like so much wildlife edutainment, One Life features notable absences. There are no human/non-human animal contact zones where disparate cultures grapple with each other and new relationships are constituted. There are no indigenous peoples and no industrialized sites. Wildlife seems to exist only in exotic, uninhabited places. There are no extended sequences that enable us to get to know individual animals over a period of time. One Life casts our encounters with our partners in life as a type of speed dating.
The disjunctions in such superficial storytelling enable a counter-narrative. Beginning with parenting and ending with mating, the documentary’s central sections are dominated by hunting. The conclusion suppresses these less palatable stories to suggest that all we need is love. But the irony of having the film’s sentimental agenda delivered by the actor who super-sexed Bond reminds us that there are other perspectives. The documentary may speak more to our similarities with the vicious, indifferent, and self-interested creatures at its centre than the representatives of animal cuteness. From a zoomorphic perspective, we too are red in tooth and claw.