Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series - Special Edition
- Street Date:
- October 4th, 2011
- Reviewed by:
- Aaron Peck
- Review Date: 1
- December 15th, 2011
- Movie Release Year:
- 530 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
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.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
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 Audio: Rating the Sound
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?
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
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.
- Audio Commentaries – Five episodes contain new audio commentaries: "Pole to Pole," "Mountains," "Caves," "Great Plains," and "Shallow Seas." "Pole to Pole" features producer Mark Linfield talking about the series as a whole and the challenges of starting it. He also delves into the more technical side of things like editing and getting the pacing down right so that the episode would have a decent flow and movement to it. In "Mountains" producer Vanessa Berlowitz gives more cursory information about the episode and tells interesting stories about the filming and the animals involved that I won't spoil here. "Caves" featuers producer Huw Cordey who is probably the most cordial of the bunch. He seems friendly and extremely interested in the episode he's commenting on. Although, around this time I was wishing that these commentaries would've made the effort to get one or two more people involved instead of just one person. It becomes a little mundane after a while. "Great Plains" features producer Jonny Keeling talking about the shoot and the challenges they had, but he's also fairly boring. Long stretches of awkward silences like he doesn't know what else to say. Finally, "Shallow Seas" has producer Mark Brownlow gives a somewhat scripted commentary which is easily more annoying that Keeling's long silences. These last two commentaries are scarcely worth your time.
- Music Only Viewing Option – There is an isolated score for each episode where you can just watch the episode along with the accompanying musical soundtrack.
- 'Planet Earth' Diaries (SD, 107 min.) – This was the most egregious omission of the 2007 Blu-ray set. The DVD set contained 10 minute long diary segments after each episode detailing a certain aspect of the shoot. The 2007 release absolutely ignored them altogether. They've been restored to this set, albeit still in standard definition which is a real bummer. Although the same episodes that featured audio commentaries also feature brief audio commentaries during their diary sections with the same people that participated above.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
- Great 'Planet Earth' Moments (HD, 46 min.) – This is the best extra feature on this set. This extensive look at the series is narrated by Attenborough. It talks about the highlights (and sometimes lowlights) of trying to film this ground-breaking documentary series. We get interviews from numerous people who were involved. We get stories from the field and anecdotes from the crew. It's the best addition of the set for sure.
- 'The Future' (HD) –
We get three additional segments here, which delve deeper into some questions that were raised by the episodes themselves.
"Saving Species" (HD, 59 min.) – The 'Planet Earth' team takes a deeper look into what's being done to save endangered species around the world. They travel to remote countries interviewing different people who discuss the efforts being undertaken to preserve some of the world's most endangered animals.
"Into the Wilderness" (HD, 59 min.) – Here we get to see the threat that humans and civilization poses to nature and natural habits. We see what population growth and construction does to the natural world around us. The documentary doesn't really take a side in the fight, but it does raise some thought-provoking questions about our own apathy towards the natural world.
"Living Together" (HD, 59 min.) – This is the more of a "what can we do to change our ways" lesson. We learn about conservation techniques. We learn how we can live with the natural world, but what will happen if we continue to neglect it, yet ask it to provide for us.
- Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth (HD, 49 min.) – Finally, we get three new bonus documentaries included here. The first is a look at the endangered snow leopard that they filmed in Pakistan. We learn first-hand from a journalist who's studied snow leopards for years, what it's like for the animal in a world where its numbers are decreasing.
- Secrets of the Maya Underworld (SD, 49 min.) – Narrator Simon MacCorkindale takes us on a journey under the Yucatan and baits us with increasing promises of discoveries that will forever change the way people look at the Yucatan.
- Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert (HD, 49 min.) – This is an all-inclusive look at how desert elephants survive and thrive in family herds. Easily the best new documentary of the three new ones you have to choose from. If you're an elephant enthusiast you'll love this one for sure.
- Sneak Peek: 'Frozen Planet' (HD, 13 min.) – This is an extended look at the new seven-part documentary series from BBC that will air on the Discovery Channel.
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.
- 6-Disc Set
- English DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1
- English SDH
- One 10-minute behind the scenes program for each episode
- Planet Earth: The Future documentary on the environmental issues raised by Planet Earth
- Commentary on select episodes
- Great Planet Earth Moments featurette
- Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth featurette on the snow leopards that annually visit a cave in the mountains of Pakistan
- Secrets of the Maya Underworld featurette on the freshwater pools in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula
- Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert featurette on two female elephants trying to raise their young in the Namib Desert
- "Music Only" viewing option
- Sneak Peek at Executive Producer Alastair Fothergill's next project: Frozen Planet
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