The BBC series 'Planet Earth' was monumental filmmaking. Never before had we seen such intimate portraits of the world's animal kingdom photographed in stunning high definition. Now, the BBC has done it again, piecing together a broad work of living art that was three years in the making. The result is 'Life,' and it continues where 'Planet Earth' left off.
The Discovery Channel version of BBC's 'Life,' that aired on American television was narrated by media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Ever since the decision was announced, people have been wondering, "Why not just let the Attenborough version air in the US?"
To describe Oprah's narration in one word: dreadful. It's hard to listen to her recite silly sex joke after silly sex joke, all the while chewing up the scenery even though she's never actually on screen. That's how distracting she is to the overall vision of 'Life.' Instead of focusing on the beautiful shots produced by the 'Life' team, we are instead focused more on this loudmouth who never knows when to just let us watch nature in motion.
Attenborough has had decades of experience narrating nature programs. It's what he does, so let's let him do it and leave Oprah to her talk show and hob-nobbing with celebrities. It's amazing how just changing the narration can change the entire feeling of the show, but it does. Badly.
Challenges of Life
What a way to begin this 10-part epic program! "Challenges of Life" shows exactly how tough it is to survive in the most hostile and remote regions on earth. Animals have developed all sorts of interesting and deadly advantages to stay alive. From dolphins who herd fish into their own mouths with walls of silt stirred up from the ocean floor to Capuchin monkeys who have figured out how to use rudimentary tools, "Challenges of Life" is one of the best and most far-reaching episodes in the series. Because it covers just about every animal family, many of which are later examined in more depth as the series goes on, it's a perfect starting point to really get us invested in what is to come. Be advised, though, that many of the stories used during "Challenges of Life" are recycled throughout the series, such as the dolphins herding fish in Florida Bay, which also can be seen in "Hunters and the Hunted."
"Life On Location": Antarctica – The 'Life' crew follows a pack of killer whales that have specifically adapted to life in the Antarctic, hoping to catch for the first time ever their hunting techniques.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Wonder and a bit of whimsy inhabit the world of reptiles and amphibians. Pebble toads are able to make themselves go rigid and fall from great heights to get away from predators. A lizard is nicknamed the Jesus Christ Lizard for its ability to run across water. Maybe the most wondrous and frightening section of the episode comes when we see first hand how ruthless and murderous komodo dragons can be when they are driven by hunger. Drool hanging from their lips, blood dripping from their mouths, komodo dragons are awe-inspiring creatures that truly look like they were transplanted here from prehistoric times. Their hunting of a wildebeest is one of the most emotional segments produced during the series.
"Life On Location": Komodo Island – Fitting that the "On Location" segment covers the shoot of the komodo dragon hunt. 'Life' is the first production ever to film such an event, and it's interesting to hear the cameramen talk about how difficult it was to film objectively. They became emotionally attached to the wildebeest as it slowly dies. Even though this is nature, it's hard to watch something so helpless be attacked and devoured without doing anything to help it. We empathize with the cameramen, because it's hard not to feel exactly as they do while watching it all unfold during the episode.
On to the world of milk, fur, and social interaction. The world of mammals is a diverse one, and the way it's depicted here is stunning in scope. From impossible migrations and millions of reindeer to the desperate search for food from polar bears, we discover being a mammal isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. This episode contains some of the most beautiful photography seen in the entire series. A magnificently composed shot of a waterfall as the camera pans over it is one of my all-time favorite shots in 'Life.' It is only topped by a spectacular shot of millions of bats flying against a background of flashing lightening, which could be paused at any time and used as a pristine, breathtaking still photo.
Unfortunately, "Mammals" also contains a major weakness that seems to pervade these amazing BBC documentaries: The insertion of downright silly sound effects. Why the filmmakers feel the need to make a chase between an elephant shrew and hungry lizard sound like a cross between a car chase and an episode of the 'Looney Toons' featuring Speedy Gonzales, I'll never know. These hammed up sound effects happened a few times during 'Planet Earth,' but were forgivable for the most part. This egregious example, however, is just plain silly and turns a harrowing life-and-death ordeal into something seemingly trivial and jovial.
Sometimes, though, humor is a welcome respite from the gruesome and oft-times gory outcomes of the animal kingdom. Watching meerkats fall over while nodding off is laugh-out-loud funny, and rightly so. No silly sound effects needed here; just some good old-fashioned hilarity provided by nature herself.
"Life On Location": Western Pacific Ocean – Even after watching this in-depth documentary on how the 'Life' crew was able to capture the mating rituals of humpback whales, it's difficult to fathom how hard it must be to track a group of whales, all the while hoping they'll perform as expected. Much of this "On Location" piece is about how the cameramen were able to get such spectacular shots underwater. Holding their breath for up to two minutes is impressive, especially when you factor in they are swimming only a few feet away from animals that weigh 40 tons and are jockeying for head mating position with six other 40-ton whales. "Occupational hazard" doesn't even begin to cover it.
Opening on a spectacular shot of a surfer riding a monstrous wave, this episode goes beneath the waves and gives us insight into what lives there. Forget 3D glasses in the theaters; some of these perfectly composed shots of swaying seaweed and underwater plants create some of the best 3D effects I've ever seen. The patented high definition slow motion used by the BBC is in full swing here as flying fish skim over the water like tiny blue missiles. "Fish" covers a variety of creatures inhabiting the seas of the world, from strong, gigantic predators such as sharks and sail fish to delicate weedy sea dragons that look like they would break if you touched them. Undulating schools of fish dodging predators makes for an awe-inspiring look into the life and survival tactics of schooling fish.
Having worked in an exotic fish store during my teenage years, I've always been fascinated with coral reefs and the inhabitants that call such an enivronment home. There's no shortage of coral reef footage here, with colorful fish and animals all trying their best to stay alive. Long tracking shots provide dazzling views of the reefs. "Fish" is a strong entry in this series, featuring the beautiful and truly bizarre life forms that live in the sea.
"Life On Location": Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico & Eastern Caribbean – Covering two shoots at once, this "On Location" takes us on a ride with the team that had the pleasure of shooting sail fish hunting schools of sardines. Sail fish can swim up to 60 mph, and it was all the cameramen could do to keep up with the fish as they sliced and diced through the water, darting after their prey. On the other side of the Caribbean, another 'Life' camera crew tries to capture flying fish in action, as well as get a glimpse of their mating rituals. Let's just say flying fish don't care where they lay their eggs. Any piece of debris floating in the water will do, even the crew's boat. This is one of the funnier "On Location" pieces, that's for sure.
The "Birds" segment is equal parts amazing and disturbing. Watching flocks of birds fly in high definition is a sight to see, but when those great white pelicans start eating chicks from other birds straight out of their nests, you can't help but feel horrified.
"Birds" does, in fact, use a few bits of footage that originally can be found on 'Planet Earth' during the "Birds of Paradise" episode. Only a few quick shots are recognizable, but it's still a little strange to reuse footage.
The real treat housed here is the story of the lammergeier, a vulture-like bird who has a nine-foot wingspan and eats bones. Just weird. I never knew this bird existed until now. That's the beauty of 'Life,' and it's main goal, I presume - introduce you to animals and behaviors you didn't know existed. A bird that swallows bones was completely unknown to me, but when I saw it, I was floored.
Even though "Birds" reuses a few shots from 'Planet Earth,' it does introduce you to some of the strangest and most astounding behavior exhibited by birds throughout the world. Just wait until you meet the bird that builds mansions for its mates, complete with floral decorations.
"Life On Location": Panama – This "On Location" feature follows the 'Life' camera crew deep into the Panamanian jungle to search for Vogelkop Bowerbirds and their elaborate displays that they construct out of flowers, colorful fungus, and sometimes deer dung. The Volekops are amazing florists and interior decorators, and it all has to do with their mating ritual. The bird with the best display wins a mate. Much like the "Birds of Paradise" "On Location" feature from 'Planet Earth,' this shows exactly how much patience it takes for a cameraman to sit in a "hide" all day to get a few shots worth using.
"Insects" covers all creepy crawly things with six legs. It's hard to believe that for every one of us there's 200,000 insects. On the other hand when you see the swarm of, literally, billions of monarch butterflies, it may not be that hard to believe. From the everyday honey bee to exotic bugs that give new meaning to "chemical warfare," this segment may get under a few people's skin. Many bugs just aren't pretty, and when I see weird-looking insects with jaws that look like they could rip off my hand, I shiver, and think of that part in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' where Willie Scott has to stick her hand through that hole filled with all kinds of nightmarish bugs. "Insects" features a beetle battle royale and a deadly dawson bee gang rape, where reproducing becomes a quite deadly affair. But, where there's ugliness in the insect kingdom, there's also beauty. Swarms of monarch butterflies cascading around the forests of Mexico is one of the most amazing sights in this series.
"Life On Location": Mexico – The 'Life' crew goes on location to a tiny bit of forest in Mexico, only about 60 square miles, where billions of monarch butterflies migrate to get away from the freezing cold winter of Canada. Here we get an idea of just how hard it is getting the perfect shots. The crew has a tough time rigging up cameras in order to get the butterfly's eye view they're looking for. This "On Location" houses some pretty sketchy-looking footage, like it was filmed with a home video camera, but it's not extremely distracting.
Hunters and the Hunted
Sometimes it gets hard to watch helpless animals get eaten over and over in nature programs, but "Hunters and the Hunted" focuses just as much on prey that overcome being eaten by using some very ingenious methods. Watching a young ibex escape from a pursuing fox on sheer rock cliffs surrounding the Dead Sea is intensely heroic. A few fragments of footage that were already seen in "Challenges of Life" are present here. As mentioned above, the bottle-nosed dolphins that herd fish with muddy dust clouds are given a more full story during this episode. Also, the story of the three cheetah brothers that take down an ostrich is replayed here, but longer and with more depth about the cheetah's background.
"Hunters and the Hunted" is equal parts killing, and escaping. We get to see streamlined predators like killer whales in action, but we also get a glimpse into the finely tuned escape plans that different animals have perfected over the years to elude their death.
"Life On Location": Falklands – The first time the 'Life' crew has been in real trouble of affecting the wildlife during their shoot. Trying to film killer whales coming into a shallow bay to snatch elephant seal pups is a daunting task, especially when the seal pups take a liking to them. Always curious, the pups investigate everything they can, even coming close to knocking over a tripod. It's interesting how many times the cameramen, up until this point, have mentioned how attached they become to the animals they're filming, and when one of the pups finally gets snatched, it's an emotional process.
Creatures of the Deep
Having already covered fish in great detail, "Creatures of the Deep" deals more with the invertebrates that inhabit the deepest reaches of the ocean. "Creatures of the Deep" is the first episode to show divers and other filming equipment during it. I felt like this took me out of the episode a little bit. Good thing there's some of the stellar time-lapse photography that's become a trademark of BBC Earth since 'Planet Earth.' Watching carnivorous starfish creep along the ocean floor devouring everything in their path is a bit unnerving, but nonetheless spectacular. The story of the giant Pacific octopus that we sampled in "Challenges of Life," is back. This time we get the full story on how a giant Pacific octopus mother cares for her young, resulting in the ultimate sacrifice.
"Creatures of the Deep" is fascinating, but probably my least favorite of the bunch. The presence of humans more than once during the episode is a little distracting, and takes you out of the world 'Life' has created up until this point.
"Life On Location": Bahamas & Antartica – In the Bahamas location, 'Life' gets ready to sink a boat to create a man-made reef. The crew takes time to prepare the ship by removing anything that could be considered harmful to the ocean's inhabitants. In Antartica, we're given a glimpse of what it's like to film in water under thick ice. The most informational part of this segment is watching how the crew works underwater to set up their cameras so they can shoot time-lapse video.
Starting out with some unbelievable time-lapse photography of the night sky circling over the top of a Bristle Cone Pine, "Plants" begins what is one of the most beautiful episodes in the series. (Yes, even if it is the only one in 1080i). The time-lapse video contained here is the best of the series by far. Time-lapse is just about the only way to watch plants grow, and 'Life' executes it to perfection. One complaint, though: attack of the ridiculous sound effects strikes again. During "Challenges of Life," we were introduced to the venus flytrap and its ability to trap insects for food. Here, we get to see the flytraps again, but this time when a fly lands on them, a timer starts. When time expires and the trap shuts, it sounds like bars closing at a jail. I understand the effect they're going for, but the imagery is enough for anyone. Adding in the sound effects cheapens the experience just a little.
"Life On Location": Studio in England – That's right, some of the stuff during "Plants" had to be filmed in a studio. The continuous shot that shows an entire year of growth and happens in a minute-long tracking shot (which looks almost Tim Burton-esque) took more than two years to create. After photographing the background shot in the wilderness, the crew must recreate the set in the studio so they can have a year-long controlled tracking shot with their own plants placed in. Using blue screen technology they were able to piece the plants together with the background. While I feel a little cheated that the masters of nature documentarians are using CGI techniques to create their own wilderness, it's still a very beautiful shot to behold.
What better way to end the series than to talk about some of the most advanced and intelligent animals on the planet. No matter what your feelings are on evolution, it's easy to see why it's debated. Primates are extremely adaptable, insanely intelligent, and just as curious as humans. They live, hunt, and work together in social groups and are able to live in complex societies without a lone leader. One of the biggest surprises for me during this episode was the realization that primates such as the Japanese macaque are able to live on the top of snow covered mountain tops. Macaques are able to survive in the chilly weather because of their thick fur and because they've found natural hot tubs to soak in. Some of the most spectacular close-up shots of the series happen during the macaques hot tub sequence.
"Life On Location": Guinea – Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. We're informed that we humans share 99 percent of the same genes as chimpanzees. The specific goal of the 'Life' team was to film the chimpanzees using tools in everyday life like when they use long pieces of grass to fish for ants or rocks to crack nuts. Even their understanding of abstract principles like sharing was caught on tape. In the end, primates are always fascinating, but they're always finding ways to surprise us more.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Oprah narrated version of 'Life' clocks in at 484 minutes spreading across four 50GB Blu-ray discs. There are 18 minutes of scenes that were deleted from the show, but which appear in the Attenborough version. My only explanation for this is that they were cut out to fit in more commercial time.
The discs are packed in the same, troublesome overlapping disc trays which require you to extract the top disc before getting to the bottom one. This version does have a small eight-page built-in color booklet of still images from the show. This is something the Attenborough edition doesn't have.
Yes it is true, the Oprah version comes to us in high definition, but in 1080i, instead of the Attenborough version which was 1080p throughout, except for the "Plants" 1080i episode.
While much of the visual information I gave in the Attenborough review is still true with this version, overall the image just looks a little softer, and less crisp than the 1080p version.
The tracking shots – through forests, over waterfalls, and above swarms of butterflies – are some of the most amazing bits of photography put onto a Blu-ray disc. I really mean that. This entire presentation, except for a couple minor soft shots, – like the scene with hoards of Mayflies – is one dazzling picture after the next.
The colors, oh the colors! 'Life' runs the gamut of colors and they all shine to perfection. Greens, reds, blues, yellows, all different shades of browns, it's all here. This 1080p transfer accurately portrays the diversity and colorfulness that exists in nature. From the golden plumage of the Lammergeier, to the color changing skin of the a Cuttlefish, every piece of color is richly rendered.
There are a few shots, especially 'Life's elaborate tracking shots that give off an almost 3D effect. Better than any gimmicky glasses could provide, that's for sure.
Blacks are deep, but there is just a few times where they seem a tad flat, but that is probably because of the need to switch film equipment back and forth depending on what they're filming and where they are. There are a few parts in the "On Location" features, where older video is used, and it's immediately apparent that they got it somewhere else.
Contrast is lovely and stable. Whites are nicely balanced. There is a time during "Hunters and the Hunted" where, after drilling through the ice a diver dives into the dark blue Antarctic waters. The white light coming through the entry hole is extremely overblown, and is almost distracting, but again, it most likely has to do with the surroundings and circumstances of that particular shot. It's hard to see anything remotely wrong with this video presentation. It's exactly the way you'd expect it to look on Blu-ray. Digital anomalies stay away.
Nature lovers and casual fans will all be impressed with this stunning presentation.
'Life's DTS-HD HR 5.1 audio presentation is enthralling to say the least. It puts you smack dab in the middle of the action as waterfalls rush around you, or buzzing insects circle over head. It's a lively soundtrack, and you'd expect it to be. Of course, Oprah's narration overtakes the entire soundtrack. That's probably due more to the nature of her voice rather than the sound design though.
My one big complaint is the cheesy sound effects that are added in every now and then like the Elephant Shrew running for his life sounding like Speedy Gonzales rounding a corner. Or the Venus Flytrap sounding like a prison door being shut in a prisoners face. There's no reason or need for these effects. Thank goodness they're few and far between. That natural beauty and sound is all we need here. We don't need the soundfield hammed up with cartoony effects.
LFE is very generous. Roars, growls, rushing water, all cause the deep, resonant rumbling. Again, ambient sound here is the crowing jewel of this presentation. Wherever 'Life' takes you it feels and sounds like you're right there. Even some of the music choices heighten the sense of playfulness, dread, or wonder, which is happening on screen. The music produced by George Fenton, and Richard Fiocca is one of the many highlights of this series. The front channels harbor the bulk of the musical soundtrack, with it bleeding into the rears when it needs to.
A setting that's only available on the Oprah version is the choice to play the entire series sans narration. Trouble is it's only 2.0 stereo and doesn't have the depth of surround sound available.
The Oprah version contains a few special features that aren't on the Attenborough version.
Just because Oprah is narrating is that a reason to subtract a full star from the score of the Attenborough version? Absolutely. Oprah's narration is grating and annoying. She takes over, instead of letting nature take the lead.
The video is tremendous - but just a little softer in 1080i. There's nothing much more to say about it. You'll be astonished at some of the photography and shots that the 'Life' team accomplished. The time lapse photography is a marvel in its own right. Sound comes across just as clear and precise as the video.
Even though the overall package comes out with a relatively decent score, I can't really recommend this one with a far superior version out there. Go get the Attenborough version and never look back.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.