Planet Earth: The Complete BBC SeriesOverview -
Storyline: 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 last year (and more recently here in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel) '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.
Having seen portions of 'Planet Earth' during its television premiere here in the U.S. on the DiscoveryHD Channel, I already knew it boasted some fantastic shot-on-HD video, but like most broadcast HD material, the DiscoveryHD presentation was constrained by heavy compression, which results in tons of artifacts, reduced resolution, and macroblocking.
This Blu-ray release of 'Planet Earth' shares an identical 1080p/VC-1 encode with the HD DVD, and, simply put, this disc delivers the kind of breathless demo material that early adopters have been craving. Far superior to the broadcast version, both next-gen editions boast wonderfully stable video, no obvious compression noise, and certainly no pixel break-up.
Colors are vivid and pure, from brilliant blue skies to lush green foliage to the variety of animal tones and shadings. Hues remain rock solid and stable, with no noise. Detail can be tremendous -- all eleven episodes boast at least one demo-worthy sequence, with my faves being an exploration of the fantastic Lechugilla Caves (filled with breathtaking visuals of crystal formations), to a startling use of time-lapse photography that shows Sequoia trees changing colors through the seasons. But there are many more such moments -- depth and clarity are truly top-tier.
Easily surpassing Warner's previous Blu-ray release of 'Relentless Enemies (which was visually stunning in its own right), 'Planet Earth' is the 'Citizen Kane' of shot-on-HD nature documentaries.
If there is any room for complaint, it would be with the source material. Compared to film, HD video has a harder time resolving fine detail in dark scenes, where video noise often runs rampant. As a result, some nighttime sequences in 'Planet Earth' look a bit more blurry and flat compared to the rest of the program. Blacks can also appear a bit gray in these scenes, and contrast doesn't have nearly the same pop as the brilliant majority of 'Planet Earth.' But I'm not going to knock the transfer for such source issues. If you're looking for the best shot-on-HD Blu-ray release available today, 'Planet Earth' should be your five-star first choice.
Compared to the video, the audio is a bit of a disappointment, with BBC offering only a single audio track on both the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of 'Planet Earth.' The mix is labeled "Dolby Digital Surround" on the back packaging, but the readout on my player showed a 5.1 track at a measly 448kbps. Hardly the uncompressed or lossless audio that most of us were hoping for.
Having said that, the sound design of 'Planet Earth' is really quite plain, so I have to admit that the lack of high-res audio is far from catastrophic in this case.
The mix itself largely front heavy -- David Attenborough's narration is the focal point, and happily it never comes through less than crystal clear. Sound effects are billed as being recorded on location, and dynamics are natural and pleasing. Occasionally, effects do sound flat or "clipped," lacking high-end frequencies or anything approaching deep low bass; however, I have to assume this was inherent to the original recording. Surround use is minimal, with only slight ambiance throughout. Finally, there is little in the way of impressive score here -- technically it sounds clean, but the volume level seemed bit weak in the mix. And no offense to the series' composers (George Fenton and Sam Watts) but I found most of the music forgettable, and largely overwhelmed by the visuals.
(Note: The American broadcast version of 'Planet Earth' featured actress Sigourney Weaver providing narration for all eleven episodes, replacing David Attenborough. However, for the domestic Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, the BBC has decided to revert to the original UK narration. For reasons unknown, there is no optional audio tracking featuring Weaver's narration.)
Alas, there's nothing to see here. While the standard-def DVD edition of 'Planet Earth' includes ten minutes of behind-the-scenes footage for each of the eleven episodes, plus 110 minutes worth of bonus material entitled 'Planet Earth – The Future,' for whatever reason, none of this content is carried over to the high-def editions.
'Planet Earth' is a staggering documentary, one ambitious in scope and filled with lovely, often breathtaking imagery. Likewise, this Blu-ray release is sure to be instant demo material, as the video is just about perfection. While the overall grade for this one gets dragged down by its lackluster audio and a total lack of supplements, neither dulls the overall sheen of the presentation. If you can afford the $99.98 list, grab this one without hesitation.
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