Chinstrap penguins and their chicks cover the slope of Zavodovski Island, an active volcano in the Southern Ocean.
Planet Earth II is a show about islands, and bears, and glass frogs, and the leopards that live in Mumbai, and, in one astonishingly funny moment, the courtship dance of bower birds. It’s about David Attenborough’s remarkable, warm, intelligent voice, and about jaw-dropping visuals. Sometimes it’s about pigeons. And yet the most arresting and beautiful thing about Planet Earth II is the way it plays with scale, in terms of both time and perspective.
Like some of the best storytelling, the narratives of Planet Earth II seem to exist in several different, ever-malleable time frames at once — a peregrine falcon’s speed dilates then rapidly increases as we watch it go from majestic slow motion into an 180-mile-an-hour dive. Time-lapse footage depicts a greening desert, flowering grasses, and flowing lava, while astounding sequences in slow motion illustrate the exact moment a lioness loses a battle with a giraffe.
It’s gorgeous to look at, and you sit there in awe, marveling at how, exactly, those images can even exist. But it’s more than just eye candy: The show’s relationship with time gives viewers emotional stakes. Yes, we can watch that excruciatingly decelerated battle between a bat and a scorpion and feel all powerful in our ability to perceive every strike and lunge. But our narrator reminds us that our hero, the bat, will also need to catch at least two more of these scorpions in the next few hours. He can only hunt at night, after all, and dawn is coming soon. The moment the scorpion lands a venomous smack on the bat’s head hangs there, timeless, but time flows again once we see it as a single moment of this bigger battle. It becomes more urgent when we consider the exigency of hunting for the whole night, and then it freezes again as we back away and consider the entire population of bats and scorpions from a distance. It’s like being able to see, in multiple dimensions at once, the rare story in which we can hold individuality — singularity — in exact balance with innumerability and universality.
Those tensions between the one versus the many, the still moment versus the rushing onslaught, are all over the original Planet Earth series, but they’re especially apparent in Planet Earth II. It’s a storytelling style that relies on the delicious fluidity between example and rule, anecdote and crowd. We focus in on one particular harvest mouse, remarkably caught frozen in mid-air as it leaps to avoid a diving barn owl. The mouse is a character. It has needs and emotional stakes; we sympathize with it and its plight; we’re awed by its dexterity and skill. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that those shots of the mouse running through deep grass are, somehow, as beautifully lit as any Northern Renaissance still life. But the particular pleasure comes when we extrapolate out from that one mouse, moving beyond its one extraordinary escape to think about the entire grassland as an ecosystem.
Fittingly, some of Planet Earth II’s most stunning images are those that places singularity within and against vastness. A mass of flamingos march around in an absurd clump, striding confidently past one bewildered bird who seems to have missed the memo. A snow leopard lives such a lonely, isolated life within a huge mountain range that the documentarians lose track of her for a month. And of course, the clip that went viral when Planet Earth II first came out in the U.K., the unbelievable iguana-versus-snakes sequence is entirely about watching one newborn iguana run for its life in an attempt to escape a boggling multitude of snakes. Planet Earth II works so well in large part because we love that dual vision, that opportunity to see a single, distinct story and hold it up side-by-side with a wide-angle viewpoint of a much bigger population. It’s our favorite way to try to see ourselves, after all — as distinct individuals, and simultaneously as members of much bigger, universalized masses.
It’s also tied up with one area where some viewers may feel that Planet Earth II falls short. It’s a show about the beauty and fragility of the world, and, particularly for American viewers right now, environmentalism, conservationism, and the idea that verifiable facts about climate change even exist feel like values under siege. And yet, Planet Earth II only makes a few references to how much the world has changed in the past decade, and how precarious the future is for many of its most delicate settings. In his narration, David Attenborough is less of a doomsday voice for the fate of the world and more of a sadly disappointed father figure who knows you already know what he’s about to say, so he’s just going to mention, as an aside, that our shorter, warmer winters are really messing things up for these adorable grizzly bear cubs. With its masterful ability to illustrate the links between huge scale changes and individual lives, it’s easy to want Planet Earth II to feel more polemical than it is. If you have the capacity to give people an emotional link to something as abstract and distant as shrinking rain forests, shouldn’t you be more forceful in calling for action?
That’s a fair perspective, but it underappreciates the potency of what Planet Earth II is doing, and the deliberate choices it’s making in the series’ final installment, “Cities.” For the already initiated, of course, the appeal for environmental action is perfectly legible throughout the full season run, implicit in every mild mention of disappearing glaciers and expanding deserts. And to that eye, the “Cities” episode could look like conciliation. These changes are happening, the episode argues. Rather than try to fight them, let’s think about how we might make choices that consider wildlife needs alongside our own. Let’s focus on achievable, feel-good visions like urban architecture designed to incorporate green space, and animals who adapt to survive in city environments.
One of the final sequences of the series, though, is far less cheery about the future, and it uses that same one-within-the-many storytelling logic the show employs so successfully. Planet Earth II’s mind-bending, ever-astonishing camera technology is put to the task of following tiny, adorable sea turtles as they hatch out of eggs on the beach. Our eye follows one sea turtle in particular, of course. Attenborough’s measured tones inform us that sea turtles use moonlight reflecting off the water to orient themselves toward the ocean, and sure enough, our tiny, newly hatched sea turtle friend begins awkwardly flopping its way across the beach. And then it pauses. And turns around. While in the background and foreground many of its brothers and sisters continue their lock-step march toward the water, our protagonist has grown confused by the bright, human-made lights across the street. It ventures farther and farther from where it should be, eventually making its way up onto pavement. And then Planet Earth II’s camera plays that singular-versus-numerous trick one more time, and the focus shifts — our sea turtle is dodging cars, but it’s also flopping across the street among the corpses of many of its siblings who’ve already been killed by human intervention.
I suppose that description of the sea turtles’ fate might constitute a spoiler. I’m sorry. But the tragic inevitability of that narrative, the utter lack of surprise inherent in the sea turtle’s story, is why it feels unfounded to complain about Planet Earth II’s insufficient politicization. Its deepest, most resonant visual and narrative preoccupations are about interconnectedness and universality, and of understanding the importance of the individual while also recognizing the broader picture. It sees both this moment — this slow-motion, frozen-in-time, yet unbelievably urgent moment in human history, in the exact same storytelling scaffold as it depicts evolution and eons-long planetary development. Nearly every frame of it is about strengthening our ability to connect individual experiences with bigger, more universal outlines. It is the rare message that’s both pointed and strikingly understated, which, right now, feels like a balm.
And it is so, so pretty.