Reviews of Planet Earth (2006) and related work

Planet Earth (2006Moving picture, 9 hours)

Samples of macroscopic life selected primarily on the basis of biome type, not location.

The most expensive documentary to date, partly because a feature-film version was made concurrently with this TV series. It addresses many of the traditional flaws of nature documentaries as observed by ecocritics, but inconsistently so. For example, it shows and talks about human activity, mentioning human threats, but not only that. It sometimes shows how things were filmed. It’s not just sex/cuteness and hunting/killing (though it is both at once in one sequence), and the biome focus is very nicely done. There’s even room for Cordyceps fungi in glorious HD.

References here: March of the Penguins (2005), Life (2009), Human Planet (2011), Our Planet (2019).

moving picture non-fiction nature series

Planet Earth II (2016Moving picture, 6 hours)

Seen in 2017.

I saw the SVT version in 1080p with Swedish-language narration and a Planet Earth Diaries episode trailing each proper episode.

Biome types again, more broadly filtered: Islands, mountains, jungles, deserts (including charismatic big cats in telescopic lenses) and grasslands. As in Human Planet (2011), the last episode treats cities.

Similarly brilliant on a technical level, and a joy to watch. The tenuous connections by terrain type within each episode are enough to sustain the cinematic feel. To the same end, I often felt that the editors traditionally abused their ability to construct a narrative around a single animal from what I assume was days worth of footage of many individuals. I would have loved to see editing being done in the Diaries, and less illusion overall. The last episode’s long, slow look at hawksbill sea turtles fooled by city lights, crawling uneventfully toward death, is enough of a narrative.

Favourites: Racer snakes chasing baby iguanas on the Galapagos; Zavodovski Island penguins struggling to get in and out of the water; fluorescent jungle creatures at night; swarming locusts on Madagascar; Harris’s hawks hunting in a pack on the ground under very spiky cacti; lightning over the desert in southwestern Namibia; drones in the slot canyons of the American west; ant bears breaking into surreally dense formations of termite stacks, and bee-eaters riding larger, walking birds because they raise insects from the grass. The hawks, and the raccoons of the city episode, act as if they might hit chimpanzee levels of intelligence in a few thousand generations, while the amazing pigeon-eating catfish are going to lag behind.

moving picture sequel non-fiction nature cultural landscape series