Blu-Ray Review: BBC Earth’s ‘Life’ Miniseries Proves Impossible to Resist
CHICAGO – No network or film company has ever come close to equaling the nature documentaries produced by BBC’s Natural History Unit. From 1979’s “Life on Earth” to 2001’s “The Blue Planet” and 2006’s “Planet Earth,” the BBC has electrified viewers worldwide with its stunning and often humbling images of life on our planet. This is the type of programming that Blu-Ray players were made for.
The network’s latest miniseries, simply titled “Life,” is unquestionably its most spectacular achievement yet, purely in terms of its visual brilliance. Though some longtime viewers may recognize various animal subjects and factual tidbits recycled from previous shows, the footage (shot over a three-year period) has a crystalline clarity that makes its predecessors look positively murky in comparison. It’s flat-out painful to view the gorgeous shots taken of the Great Barrier Reef, in light of the recent oil spill. “Life” doesn’t need to include any preachy messages because its images already speak multitudinous volumes.
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.0/5.0
Each episode in the ten-part series focuses on the survival instincts that living things have acquired and evolved in order to adapt to their environment. While underwater, a blind star-nosed mole blows a bubble that it subsequently inhales in order to capture the scent of nearby prey. A male Vogelkop bowerbird attracts females by building an elaborate “bower,” complete with a lawn and various natural decorations. A young ibex outwits its predator by standing atop a rocky precipice that could only hold…well, an ibex. A school of sardines move together like a singular organism, proving there truly is strength in numbers. A giant bullfrog excavates a channel that allows his tadpoles to leave a crowded puddle and enter a main pool where they can flourish. It’s easy to see what attracted Walt Disney to exploring the human characteristics in animal life forms. When an elephant attempts to save her baby from getting stuck in the mud, she ends up pushing her in further, until the no-nonsense “grandma” elephant pushes her daughter aside, and allows the little tyke to get out herself.
Copper sharks feed on sardine shoals off South Africa in a scene from the BBC Earth series Life.
Photo credit: © Alexander Safonov
If there’s one major drawback to this Blu-Ray edition of “Life,” it’s the American narration by Oprah Winfrey (as presumably the voice of Mother Earth). The instant recognizability of her voice, coupled with its teacherly assurance, is a constant distraction. When a seal gathers her newborns for a swimming lesson, Oprah sings, “Time for school!” Is a British accent simply too difficult for an American audience to comprehend? The original narration was written and delivered by longtime BBC broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough (brother of Richard), whose voice has a gravitas and wisdom no celebrity guest can match (not even Morgan Freeman).
While the majority of the footage was filmed on location, some shots have been clearly staged by the filmmakers. How else could camera crews get up-close-and-personal with a strawberry poison dart frog the size of a fingernail, or capture footage of a Common Basilisk walking on water, from the POV of the water? Only one of the show’s staged shots is revealed and deconstructed in the special features. It comes near the beginning of my personal favorite episode (“Plants”), in which the entire growing season of a woodland is captured in a single continuous take. State-of-the-art high-speed cameras combined with masterful time-lapse photography allow these plants to pulsate with life like never before.
Life was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 1st, 2010.
Photo credit: BBC Earth
“Life” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio) and is accompanied by English, French and Spanish subtitles. The four-disc set includes all ten episodes (each averaging 43 minutes in length), as well as an additional episode functioning as a making-of featurette. It’s an out-and-out shame that Attenborough’s original narration isn’t offered as an alternate audio track, though viewers are provided the option of viewing the episodes without Winfrey’s narration (unfortunately, the intrusive score remains). However, Attenborough’s voice is heard loud and clear in the special features, which consist primarily of ten “Life on Location” featurettes that expand on the behind-the-scenes footage (these were also offered in the show’s initial Blu-Ray release). They provide uncommonly intimate portraits of nature documentarians at work, and are as unforgettable as the series itself. While capturing the first-ever filmed footage of Komodo dragons attacking a water buffalo, cameraman Kevin Flay finds himself torn between excitement for his achievement and primal empathy for the animal being slowly destroyed before his lens. There’s an equally touching moment where sea lions tug at the heartstrings of filmmakers who are waiting to watch them be eaten. Such is “Life.”
Among the eighteen minutes of deleted footage are sequences that were most likely cut in order to avoid terrorizing younger American viewers (this ain’t no “March of the Penguins”). Baby penguins are devoured by leopard seals, the eggs of a collared iguana are gulped by a snake and a school of sardines are wiped out by sailfish. The most visually breathtaking scene, by far, is the one involving a massive grouping of flamingoes that engage in a courtship march. There’s also brief segments on grass and wheat, but thankfully, not mold. “Planet Earth” fans will especially be interested in a promo for BBC’s next nature series, which inevitably tackles the topic of mankind. And no, it will not be a rip-off of “Babies.”