The film “Life on Our Planet” receives criticism for repetitive cliches, often repeated by narrator Morgan Freeman.
Nature documentaries were once a celebration of the vast and magnificent world we live in. However, with the emergence of the climate crisis, these programmes had to change their focus to highlight the potential destruction of our world and how we can prevent it. Now, a new type of wildlife series, including Life on Our Planet, is emerging. These programmes explore the idea of humanity causing its own demise, while also reminding us that nature has survived worse challenges in the past. Through stunning cinematography, we are presented with a powerful narrative of a world that will continue to exist without us.
The idea is similar to Chris Packham’s excellent BBC program, “Earth.” It covers a timeline of over 2 billion years, showcasing the emergence, evolution, and constant danger to life on our planet due to climate change and sudden disasters. While humans are just a small piece of the natural world today, this world is only a fraction of the vast number of species that have existed. However, the current creatures have inherited their defining traits from the now extinct species of the past.
The film Life on Our Planet utilizes modern techniques such as CGI and photography to seamlessly blend footage of real animals in their natural habitats with digitally created sequences. The extinct animals that have been digitally resurrected may appear to float as they walk and there are some scenes where an unrealistic number of dinosaurs are shown together for visual effect, but overall, the transitions between past and present are seamless.
With the exception of catastrophic events caused by volcanoes, asteroids, or carbon dioxide, the common theme in natural history programs remains the same: we observe fights or mating rituals. Whether it’s watching a Dunkleosteus from 374 million years ago struggle to break open an ammonoid’s shell or witnessing a marsh frog suddenly spring up to shoot its tongue at a dragonfly, the focus is on these primal actions. Even 345 million years ago, two Arthropleura (ancestors of millipedes) enjoyed each other’s company in a forest, while currently, a tiny jumping spider contorts its legs in disco-like moves to attract a mate.
The brief instances demonstrate the way mammals, reptiles, arthropods, fish, cephalopods, and other groups, referred to as “dynasties” by the program, evolved through the process of natural selection. The narrator in Morgan Freeman’s film trailer states, somewhat illogically, that throughout time, life has been engaged in a never-ending battle with one dynasty succeeding before being overpowered by the next.
The survival of the viewer until the conclusion of the eight episodes of “Life on Our Planet” depends on their reaction to the narration given by Freeman. The narration often compares groups of animals to an army or a winning sports team, such as when Freeman remarks that vertebrates would never turn back after the dunkleosteus showcases its powerful jaws. However, the narration also tends to repeat exaggerated statements.
“Underneath the surface of the sea,” Freeman’s voice rumbles as the narrative begins in the depths of the ocean, “life had established itself and was poised to forever alter our planet.” As moss transforms into plants with more resilient cell walls that can reach towards the sky: “A revolution of green was on the horizon, destined to transform the landscape permanently.” When fish evolve into beings with basic lungs and legs, enabling them to survive on land: “The transition from fin to limb spanned millions of years, but once accomplished, life on land would never be the same.” The struggle between mammals and reptiles for control over the land is a pivotal event that “significantly impacted life on our planet”. Dinosaurs hold the title of “the most recognized dynasty in history” and later become “some of the most iconic creatures to ever roam the Earth”. The greening of Earth during the Devonian period is considered “one of the most astonishing events in history”.
The reason why Life on Our Planet has taken this approach is because it is difficult to capture major events in pictures, so it is attempting to convey the magnitude of what is happening through words. However, if the series focused less on constantly emphasizing the extraordinary nature of everything, it could have had more educational content. If you were to watch the show with a curious child, they may ask unanswered questions about the causes of the fluctuations in oxygen and CO2 levels that led to mass extinctions in the past. In its current form, Life on Our Planet is a meaningless display that we no longer have time for.