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Life: A Simple Story About Sex and Food

Sumptuously filmed, gorgeously executed, and groundbreaking in technique and motivation, Life must be one of the great film accomplishments of the decade.


Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Oprah Winfrey
Network: BBC
UK Release Date: 2009-11-30
US Release Date: 2010-06-01

I could be absolutely farcical about this review: it’s another nature documentary in a string of them produced by the BBC’s Natural History Unit. It’s absolutely great stuff, but something most of us would feel is, by this time, in this moment of (post-)modern apathy, thoroughly old hat. Things just don’t get at us anymore, a conspiracy enabled via media saturation and the desensitization that comes with it. Sure, it’s pretty, but we want something more that, seemingly, can’t be fully captured by an individual and a camera. The crowds, it would seem, yearn for Avatar's Pandora and not our own blue planet.

With that in mind, I had every intention of producing a mocking work: Life thoroughly fails, falling blandly short of a narrative with cheap location shots bolstering a lackluster story about food and sex, with the result being a resounding BBC fail. I was ready, mustering up all my cynical reserves, but at times, you just have to stop and drop that crap-façade because, my word, this is something else.

I remember, with fond memories, getting all excited at nature documentaries on public broadcasting. Growing up in a Commonwealth nation, we had ample access to the soothingly sagely voice of Richard Attenborough, barely raising above his schoolmasterly way, a string of passive diction as he explains another brutal kill in the wilds of our planet. It was thoroughly inspiring stuff, steering me awkwardly into the fields of biology and ecology as a young ‘un. I fell away from this idealistic path, delving into the sordid realm of journalistic commentary and political science much to my eventual chagrin. In many ways, Life has rekindled that little child in me that goes ‘Wow!’

My encounters with animals have since been thoroughly limited, either to the cute and cuddly type trotted along the sidewalks, or the ones that go sizzle. Life, it seemed, happened to other people – the adventurer-explorers I had idolized, or the farmers. I can’t speak for the whole urban world, but I had lost any idea of vital connection with the life cycles of the other species. If Life is any measure to go by, it really is my loss.

Life, a titanic effort by the BBC’s much-respected Natural History Unit (producers of an amazing catalogue spanning over 50 years including the recent Planet Earth), began in 2006 and eventually roamed all seven continents – plus a couple of oceans – and conducted more than 150 shoots over a period of three years. With a very healthy budget, filmmakers were allowed to experiment and try out new techniques: miniaturized high-definition cameras that burrowed into the ground to find mudskipper egg chambers and followed the scuttling ants on a jungle floor, to gratuitous high-speed photography that capture, with every loving nuance, the intricate movements of nature’s swifter creatures like absolutely stunning wild animal takedowns or even something as prosaic as a catch of surf glinting as the speckled waves fall in the gleams of a dwindling sunset. Wow.

Several natural firsts were also captured: a Jesus Christ Lizard scampers over Amazonian pools, humpback whales chase a female on a heat run, Florida Bay dolphins invent new hunting techniques. One’s sense of awe is liable to be invoked on at least a few occasions.

Broken up into ten episodes, Life follows very rough, broad arcs, documenting families of life from the humblest insect to oceanic leviathans. Each "story" follows a specific organism in their everyday travails. If one wishes to be dismissive, it can be described as "food, sex, and death". It is not inaccurate, but it is thoroughly dishonest. No words can describe life – least of all these, which in itself is its own dishonesty – and an attempt to explain it will fall short. This is a film that one experiences for all its majesty.

The one nit-picky thing, and perhaps avoidable one, would be the abruptness in transitions. We jump from organism to organism – sometimes the survey seems curtailed though every narrative brings about its own triumphs and heartbreaks. The story of Life is tasted, inviting the interested viewer to seek their own further engagement. Viewed silently, the narration-less experience makes for a compelling, if visceral screensaver, perfect for losing oneself in the music and moment, or standing in as some particularly visceral living wallpaper.

As in nature, Life can sometimes get out-of-hand in amazingly great ways. The sheer scope of it beggars the imagination and so moving are some of the sequences, one is tempted to nearly exclaim that "real life is unrealistic". How pitiful it must seem for an atrophied consciousness to not find such sumptuous majesty in these moments. The cycles and stories found within these episodes might appear fantastical and it comes with deepening understanding, respect, and awe, the realization that magic exists in the world if we are prepared to accept it.

There are, inevitably, some "Oh my!" moments. The first is triggered almost immediately: the very first scene features three cheetahs on a hunt for an ostrich. The sleek predators, working in tandem, betray their desperation in attempting to subdue an even larger animal with its own vicious defenses. The supple agility of the cheetahs reveals their raw, savage energy, and the clash that must follow pits life’s furious intensity in the essential story of the series. It is a stark choice between life and death, and within it, all its triumphant moments and heartbreaking conclusions.

The American version (here reviewed) differs from the original British in having replaced writer/narrator Richard Attenborough with Oprah Winfrey. There was some hesitance on my part. I am, after all, more used to hearing her on everyday sob-stories, giving away cars, or more recently, imploring a careless and errant American population to stop texting while you’re driving. She is not necessarily my go-to voice talent.

Winfrey's deep, alto-delivery though, was after the first episode, an anchor throughout the series. Without the hint of a rise, she narrates in a pleasing deadpan: she seems completely at home talking about how a Venus Flytrap digests unwary insects, and not at all phased by Attenborough’s cheap puns (a certain kind of bug, that lengthens its eye stalks to attract mates, is said to fail and "fall short"). For those who prefer to experience their nature unmediated, the option is available to have a music-only film. George Fenton’s soundtrack is a sound accompaniment, cheekily playful with the meerkats, suitably glacial amongst the whales, and "chittery" where ants are involved.

What is more astounding about Life is what the producers decided were, somehow, superfluous. For our viewing pleasure, the powers that BBC have added the requisite DVD deleted scenes. Eighteen-minutes of what could not have been included in the final cut -- more stunning vistas, incomplete or fuzzily captured motions (made forgivable given the vast, sometimes miles, distances between the camera and the animal observed) -- complete the Life experience. Compared to the rest of the series, these scenes seem like pale enjoyment but help to lend a sense of just how difficult the entire project must have been.

That realization is made more transparent with the 'making-of' sections, delving into the trials and adventures of a crew living on the edge for that one perfect shot. At times harrowing and insightful, and often both at once, following the crews into steamy jungles or leaning off impossible precipices feels like an adventure film all on its own.

Perhaps Life’s greatest claim is that it reveals a fable of unprecedented proportions. Life is out there and it unfolds its story whether we observe it or not. It is a masterwork of dedication and commitment to detail a story we are not usually privy to. Sumptuously filmed, gorgeously executed, and groundbreaking in technique and motivation, Life must be one of the great film accomplishments of the decade.


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