For the past 40 years the BBC Natural History Unit’s supremacy has been unrivalled, producing stunning feats with ‘Life on Earth’ and ‘The Blue Planet’. Now, the streaming giant Netflix takes it on with a series that not only steals the team behind the masterly ‘Planet Earth’ (2006), but also the voice of natural history — Sir David Attenborough.
With a Hollywood-scale budget (Netflix isn’t divulging how much but we can assume it is gargantuan), an Ellie Goulding song and the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature, ‘Our Planet’ is predictably epic in scope and visually dazzling.
But in other ways the eight-part series falls down. It is cliched in its portrayal of life on earth as a slow motion ballet of tooth and claw. Lions leap. Elephants cast high-definition shadows in languid overhead shots. Creepy crawlies squirm. In short, the innovations that made Attenborough’s shows so sensational are absent.
Take the most recent series, 2018’s ‘Dynasties’. This found a new way of communicating the drama of nature by focusing on the societal struggles of several alpha species. In triumph and tragedy we caught reflections of ourselves. ‘Our Planet’ feels like a sumptuous repackaging of Attenborough’s greatest hits but without the rigour that deepens our understanding of the natural world.
Essentially, it’s a megabucks remake of ‘Planet Earth’ and recycles that format, focusing on a different landscape in each episode — jungles, deserts, the deep sea and the frozen forests of the far north. One new element is an urgent environmental message. Attenborough has been criticised for soft-soaping the degree to which humanity has pushed the world toward a new extinction event but that was confronted head on with ‘Blue Planet II’, with its chilling warning about plastics pollution in the oceans.
‘Our Planet’ punches nowhere near as hard, and a dreadful theme tune dilutes the message. Yet if the imagery remains, on the whole, family friendly, Attenborough (who doesn’t appear, merely lending his still razor-sharp narration) has a bleak outlook: a hundred million sharks killed each year for shark-fin soup; a hundred orangutans lost every week due to the industrialised devastation of their jungle home.
There are moments to rival his own classics, such as the mountain gorillas with whom he bonded on ‘Life On Earth’ and the killer whales tossing seals for fun on the ‘Trials of Life’. African hunting dogs on the prowl in slow motion is breathtaking as is a horizon-spanning line of flightless flamingo chicks in search of water.
Yet gorgeous footage never quite disguises the fact that ‘Our Planet’ has little interest in reinventing the genre. Only at the end is there a glimmer of originality when the scene of the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster is revisited. Too radioactive for us, the contaminated zone has flourished as a haven for plants and animals. It’s haunting: more of this and Our Planet might have been a meaningful addition to the canon of natural history series. Instead, it prioritises cinematic grandeur.
Don’t miss it!
Our Planet streams on Netflix from April 5.