“Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works, and how to help it,” famed nature documentarian David Attenborough says in Our Planet, the Netflix nature series that premiered April 5.
Nowadays, the story of the natural world includes the beauty — and the loss. Where there is animal life, there is humor, drama, and wonder. If you’ve seen BBC-produced nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Life, and the like, many scenes in Our Planet will be familiar.
Our Planet is not produced by the BBC (it was made by Silverback films, the company behind Disney’s foray into feature-length nature docs). But it looks like it was.
In Our Planet’s eight episodes you’ll see herd animals on the run from a pack of hunters, a baby animal struggling to live past its first days, and the weird and byzantine mating rituals of tropical birds. Indeed, many of the animal segments in Our Planet are very similar to those in previous series. I’d say this is the biggest disappointment about the show. How many times do we need to follow a wildebeest migration, or see a bird of paradise dance for a mate? (Attenborough narrated a nearly identical scene on them in Planet Earth.)
But what makes this series stand out from those previous efforts is that Our Planet plays notes of an elegy. We’re living in an age of staggering wildlife loss due to human development, overfishing, deforestation, and climate change.
This series doesn’t let us forget that.
Humans have caused staggering amounts of wildlife loss. Our Planet doesn’t hide from it.
The second episode contains the saddest scene perhaps ever shot in a nature documentary. It focuses on an enormous gathering of walruses that have been forced onto a tiny stretch of dry land due to the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic. Every inch of the land is covered with walruses, so some — and remind you, these animals weigh a ton — take to climbing up to a tall cliff to escape the crowd.
When it comes time to feed in the ocean, they can’t climb down. And so they fall — awkwardly, painfully, all 2,000 pounds of them — down the steep cliff. It’s heartbreaking, and you feel the invisible presence of humans pushing them off.
Our Planet was produced in association with the international wildlife conservation nonprofit WWF, and a strong tone of advocacy for protecting biodiversity runs through the series.
Earlier this year, the WWF released its biennial Living Planet Report, a global assessment of the health of animal populations all over the world. Here’s the topline finding: The average vertebrate population — that is, the average size of any given species population in the WWF’s database, whether it has 10,000 individuals or 10 million — has declined 60 percent since 1970.
In another recent effort, a different set of researchers tried to estimate a weight for all of life on Earth, making sure to calculate what was missing from their figures. They estimated that the mass of wild land mammals is seven times lower than it was before humans arrived. Similarly, marine mammals, including whales, are a fifth of the weight they used to be because we’ve hunted so many to near extinction.
The enormity of wildlife losses is difficult to capture on camera
It’s hard to communicate the enormity of these animal losses in a wildlife documentary. Sure, Attenborough can simply tell us about wildlife loss in a world in the grips of climate change.
But it can be hard to internalize the lessons on a gut level. The camera still captures life on a grand scale: Wildebeest herds are still enormous, penguin colonies stretch as far as the eye can see, millions upon millions of ants inhabit jungle floors. Our world is still teeming with life, on scales large and small. We should stand in awe of it.
Though other scenes (in addition to the heartbreaking walrus cliff dive) do convey a visceral sense of loss, I wish there were more of them. So much of this series is pretty much a clone of the Planet Earth and Blue Planet series that came before it. The scenes that attempt to visualize loss can feel tacked on, but they are also the most original and impactful moments of the series.
In the third episode, on jungles, Attenborough pivots from the amazing adaptations of Borneo’s carnivorous plants to a simple time-lapse animation from space, showing how the island has lost half of its forest in the past 50 years. The fourth episode on shallow seas lingers on dying, bleached corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The cinematography in Our Planet is what we’ve come to expect of a high-definition nature documentary: plain gorgeous. Every shot is so incredibly saturated, sharp, filled with texture and sumptuous contrasts that it almost seems fake. Our Planet’s cameras have never met a ray of light peeking out through the mist or clouds they didn’t like. And there are many sweeping shots taken presumably in the late afternoon, photography’s golden hour when shadows are long and contrasts are vivid.
For me, all that color and lush light projected a subtle feeling of sunset onto the series — a visual metaphor that nightfall is descending on our gorgeous world. And that feeling is compounded by Attenborough’s narration. His voice sounds immortal, but he is not. Attenborough is 92. Watching Our Planet, I couldn’t help but think of this fact.
When he intones “What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future of life on Earth,” I know he won’t (likely) live to see how that future plays out.
There’s still majesty in the world, just like there’s still majesty in Attenborough’s voice. But it’s soon to fade if we don’t take the pains to conserve and protect it.