A Brutal Yet Beautiful Reality: 'The Blue Planet: Seas of Life'

It's not all pretty pictures, here. Nature, as pointed out by Lord Tennyson, is red in tooth and claw, and he might have added flipper and fin, as well.

The Blue Planet: Seas of Life

Distributor: BBC Earth
Cast: David Attenborough
Network: BBC Earth
UK release date: Import
US release date: 2013-04-09

At first glance, The Blue Planet: Seas of Life seems like the newest installment in the BBC's seemingly endless series of top-drawer nature programs, a stellar run that includes the astonishing Planet Earth and recent jaw-dropper, Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown.

The Blue Planet, however, is no recent addition to this prestigious family, but rather an entry that dates back to 2001. Now it has been reissued on blu-ray disc, which ensures that its eye-popping visuals are more impressive than ever. With more than three hours of bonus features, this three-disc set will delight fans of the genre, and even rekindle interest in viewers who may have seen it already. (Please note that this review is not for the five-disc set that was reissued in 2007.)

The original series contains eight hour-long episodes, the first being "Ocean World", which provides something of an overview to the series as a whole. Subsequent episodes focus on "The Deep", "Open Ocean", "Coral Seas", "Tidal Seas" and so forth. With such material, it's no surprise that many of the images here are astonishing; coral reefs and enormous schools of fish are inherently photogenic and beautiful, as are manta rays, playful dolphins, majestic whales, and sea turtle hatchlings scrambling madly for the water's edge. All are here, and a good deal more besides.

Also here is narrator David Attenborough, himself a singular life form whose enthusiasm is infectious. If the narration is prone to absolutes and breathless superlatives—a la "The coral reef is the most abundant source of life in the world', and so on—well, it's forgivable. The ocean is, after all, the sort of place that's given to superlatives and absolutes. More of the planet's surface is covered with water than anything else; more species reside there than anywhere else; more biomass is present there than anywhere else; the list goes on and on.

Trying as it does to capture some sense of the oceans as a complete biosphere, The Blue Planet also touches on a few non-marine species that nonetheless are a part of its cycle, namely, sea birds. Breeding in their tens of thousands, birds from the albatross to the flamingo are inextricably woven into the ebb and flow of life in the water. And even if you've seen them before, those underwater shots of gulls and other birds diving headlong into the ocean, flapping for a few frebetic strokes to capture herring or sardines before lurching their way to the surface, are never less than breathtaking.

However, it's not all pretty pictures. Nature, as pointed out by Lord Tennyson, is red in tooth and claw, and he might have added flipper and fin, as well. A couple of sequences here are particularly notable for their astonishing rawness. In one, a pod of killer whales spends hours harrying a mother humpback who is accompanying her calf to their summertime feeding grounds off the coast of Canada. The orcas are not just playing around, and the calf's life is at stake. Elsewhere, killer whales—again!—prey on young sea lions off the southern tip of South America. These two sequences are beautifully shot, painful to watch and utterly riveting. Anyone who still has faith in the pastoral ideal of unspoiled wilderness will have an awakening while sitting through these scenes.

One is reminded of Woody Allen's joke about why he hates the wilderness. To paraphrase: "Everything is eating everything else… it's like a giant restaurant." That certainly comes through in this series. Everything is, pretty much, eating everything else, all the time, and then having sex or trying to, and then eating some more. It's to the BBC's credit that these programs don't try to gloss over what is at heart a very brutal reality.

The bonus features are extensive but not nearly as engaging as the core programs, which is hardly surprising. There are a number of additional documentaries with watery themes, such as a trip to the Amazon in search of new species there, but these lack Attenborough's narration, and suffer from an excess of enthusiasm for "discoveries" that would barely register elsewhere in the series. They are also of the type that puts the scientist/researcher in the front and center of the show, unlike the Blue Planet docs, which keep the focus on the wildlife. They're worth watching, but keep your expectations low.

Other bonus features include interviews with some of the filmmakers and, most interesting, a good deal of making-of footage, all of which respects the efforts of the talented people involved but doesn't try to turn them into cool celebrities.

Viewers who haven’t seen this series yet should certainly give it a look. The "upgraded to blu-ray" picture looks impressive on my admittedly modest (26”) HD TV, and the extensive underwater photography benefits from the improved resolution. Viewers familiar with the series will need to decide whether the bonus features warrant a purchase. Regardless, the BBC is to be commended on this stellar run of programs. Here's hoping they keep them coming.


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