Seven continents. Five years. A $25 million budget. A total runtime of 530 minutes. 'Planet Earth' is an undertaking so epic in scope and idealistic in intent, that it legitimately earns comparisons to to the grandest Hollywood blockbusters. It's the 'Titanic' of television nature documentaries -- a work of great majesty, high ambition and huge financial risk (after all, this isn't a genre known for generating huge profits). That the BBC agreed to back such an enterprise at all is a kind of small miracle.
First airing as an eleven episode series on the BBC in England late 2006, 'Planet Earth' really is huge on every level. The production employed over a dozen of the world's most reknowned nature photographers, sent them out to traverse the globe for over 60 months, capturing the planet's most amazing landscapes and creatures in stunning high-definition. Even the title of the series is ballsy -- you don't name your documentary 'Planet Earth' if you're not aspiring to something monumental.
As an example of "pure cinema," 'Planet Earth' succeeds. It simply captivates our eyes with every frame. How some of these sights were even able to be photographed by humans often boggles the mind. The filmmakers often spent hours -- even days -- attempting to document a single, indelible moment, and the pay-off is often extraordinary. In one of many fantastic moments, a group of baby birds dive off a cliff and take flight for the first time -- such visual images have the energy and excitement of true discovery. It is like witnessing a baby take its first steps, or remembering the first time you tasted ice cream -- 'Planet Earth' is a nature documentary that allows us to revel in the child-like wonder of discovering our world.
Visual brilliance aside, 'Planet Earth' is hardly groundbreaking in its use of the documentary form. The narrative approach to the material is standard-issue for a nature series; in fact, there really isn't much of a narrative at all. British naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough (not to be confused with his actor brother, Richard) provides the narration for all eleven episodes of 'Planet Earth,' but this is not a documentary that tells an overall story. Instead, 'Planet Earth' is a series of vignettes -- loosely paced and assembled -- that certainly form an eventual thematic arc, but nothing more than that. That may be the doc's one weak point, at least in terms of mainstream appeal. Though the subject matter of 'Planet Earth' is of course more far-reaching and ambitious than say a 'March of the Penguins,' it's ultimately not nearly as emotionally satisfying.
Still, 'Planet Earth' is certain to be held up as the high watermark of its genre. Just the sheer scope of the project gives it a majesty rare for a genre usually known for its low budgets and cheesy production values. Finally, be warned -- 'Planet Earth' is highly addictive. No matter which episode you choose, it's always accessible, like nature documentary comfort food. I found myself lulled into a near trance-like state of serenity throughout its eleven episode, 530-minute runtime. Even though I've just sat through it all, I already want to watch it again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
There are some notable differences between this Special Edition of 'Planet Earth' compared to the original edition reviewed above, but on the whole, the original review accurately depicts this release since many of the changes have to do with more special features being added and a new encode being used for the video presentation.
This set comes in a cardboard slipcase with a digibook-like disc holder. Each page in the book holds a disc in a cardboard sleeve, much like the discs in the 'Rome: Complete Series Collection.' The digibook has a list of episodes on each disc along with some very nice still photography taken from the series spread across two pages of the book in a panoramic view. The six discs contained in the set are BD50s.
Well, here's the conundrum with this set. The back of the case states that this release was "newly encoded to take advantage of recent innovations in Blu-ray technology." I'm not sure what the new technology they used was, but the end product is weird on multiple levels. First, why did we get a 1080i release, when the 2007 Blu-ray release of 'Planet Earth' was in 1080p? Second, what was the reasoning behind giving the series a new encode? Was the demo-worthy quality of the first just not good enough? I can't understand why you would rejigger something that worked so well the first time. Thirdly, if this new encode was supposed to be so special then why does this set look noticeably inferior to the previous set?
That's right, the picture here doesn't quite match up to the 2007 release, which Peter Bracke gave 5 stars. Granted the first Blu-ray release of 'Planet Earth' came out around the beginning of the format, but to completely redo the video presentation only to end up with an inferior product is frustrating for consumers.
Noise is a constant annoyance. Check out the flocks of birds and migrating packs of animals. No longer are the separate distinct dots. They seem to blend together with noise hampering most of the scene. You don't even have to look closely to see it. Softness seems to be another deterrent here. There are varying degrees of clarity throughout the series instead of the more uniform clarity of the 2007 release. Hair and fur doesn't look clear and distinct, instead it looks matted and undefined. Noticeable banding even pops up on occasion.
Colors don't seem to pop as much either. Vistas and wide shots harbor less magical wonderment than they did before. I'm simply disappointed by the look of this release, especially because this is supposed to be a newly minted special addition which adds special features for fans, but in turn cuts corners on the video presentation.
Does this presentation still wow in some areas? Yes. But is it as immersive or amazing as its 2007 counterpart? I don't think so. It seems like an second-rate video transfer all around.
The 2007 release was hindered by a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track. We get a slight upgrade here, but we're still faced with a lossy option. This time around 'Planet Earth' has been furnished with a DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1 mix.
After comparing the two I would say that this set offers a pretty audible upgrade especially when considering the presence of some well-rounded ambient sound and a few moments of genuinely deep low-end frequency.
Attenborough's narration takes main stage like it always has. There's no real difference here as his voice is clear and intelligible just like it was last time. The noticeable difference comes when Attenborough hushes for a moment and lets the sounds of nature envelope the soundtrack. Then it's easy to hear the rear channels come to life as lions roar and birds chirp. Hoof beats and growls offers some low-end intensity. It isn't going to shake your room, but it does present you with some deeper bass than what was provided in the 2007 release.
So I guess the question here is are you willing to sacrifice video for a slight upgrade in audio? Why they couldn't go with a lossless Master Audio track is a mystery to me. As long as they're applying new encodes, then why not?
This is where you're going to find the most bang for your buck if you're looking to "upgrade" your 2007 release, which was barebones as far as special features were concerned.
Talk about a mixed bag! 'Planet Earth' really is one of the most stunning documentaries ever assembled and its content still holds up today. This set however, is completely bonkers in the way that it was put together. The video was given a new encode, but it's clearly not as good as that on the 2007 release. The audio has been upgraded, but only marginally. It hasn't been given a true lossless mix yet. Finally, there are loads of new commentaries and bonus documentaries which will surely be the reason why some people pick these up (although many of the added bonus material are still in standard definition). As much as I adore 'Planet Earth' I just don't think I can recommend this set. You'll have to give it a rent and see what you think by comparing it to your 2007 set.