Our Planet is the biggest, nicest snuff film ever made. The mass murder it records has been in progress for at least 60 years, probably longer. The victims are the Earth’s flora and fauna and the complex ecosystems they inhabit. Eventually, the list of casualties will include the same species that produced the high-tech moviemaking equipment that allowed filmmakers to capture razor-sharp 4K digital-video imagery of jungles, glaciers, and velds, and the industrial technology that enabled strip-mining, mountaintop removal, clear-cutting, chemical pollution, and the manufacture of nonbiodegradable plastic that’s currently destroying coral reefs and choking aquatic life to death.
Legendary broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough, now 92, narrates this eight-part series, which is overseen by Alastair Fothergill, the filmmaker behind The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Earth, and a series of stand-alone wildlife documentaries for Disney. Every time-honored cliché of the TV nature documentary is served with a smile, from the way Our Planet fixates on a majestic/beautiful/cute species as a means of luring you into a wider discussion of environmental issues (for instance, caribou struggling to survive in the increasingly temperate Arctic, or flamingos forced to migrate to a desert), to Attenborough’s grandpa-tells-a-bedtime-story narration, to the Mickey-Mousing score by Steven Price (Gravity), whose cue sheets could bear titles like “Requiem for a Walrus” and “Mambo Orangutano” and “Jewish Wedding of the Leaf-Cutter Ants.”
It’s the stylistic ordinariness of the production that ultimately makes it such a punishing viewing experience. Much of the series is built around the rope-a-dope maneuver of drawing you into the stories of individual animals through blatantly anthropomorphized filmmaking and narration (one of the orangutans is even identified as “Louie”), then dropping the expected, awful news that they’re being wiped out by poachers, pollution, population sprawl, and climate change.
There’s always a shred of hope nestled somewhere — even if it’s as thin as Attenborough working a variation of “if it’s not too late” into the end of a summation of why the ice caps are melting and the rain forest is being denuded, or periodically repeating the address of the documentary’s website and encouraging viewers to visit it and learn how to save Our Planet. The series strives to be as little-kid friendly as possible. It occasionally shows animals suffering, but only briefly, and I don’t believe it ever depicts predators killing prey, even after having gone to great lengths to reassure us that just because a wolf kills a caribou doesn’t make it a bad doggie. But none of this is enough to quell the feeling that humans have let greed, cruelty, and indifference run wild for far too long.
In fact, there are times when Our Planet seems to be whistling through a graveyard to forestall an attack of panic or depression. Given all the bad news the filmmakers must deliver, lest they be accused of sugarcoating, it’s a mystery how they managed to get through even five minutes of creature antics without having Attenborough bitterly growl, “Take a good look, they’re all going to be dead soon,” followed by the “plunk” noise of a whiskey bottle being swigged.
Footage of silverback mountain gorillas in Congo rain forests is quickly made melancholy by Attenborough’s aside: “His kind are critically endangered.” A few minutes after that, our elation at pivoting to appreciate jungle elephants is likewise undercut: “The elephant has reason to be wary, too.” We thrill at the series’ explanations of how the desert enriches the sea and the sea the desert, and how species like the cormorant, the wolf, and the slime mold participate in the process; then Attenborough harshes our buzz by talking about how “all across our planet, crucial connections are being disrupted. The stability that we and all life relies upon is being lost.”
The largest gathering of walrus on the planet, Attenborough tells us, is happening on a beach in Russia not because it’s happy hour and the bartender is serving two-for-one mackerel margaritas, but because the walrus’s “natural home is on the sea ice, but the ice has retreated up North, and this is the closest feeding ground where they can find rest.” As caribou gallop over the tundra in hypnotic slow motion, we learn that their world “is now literally melting beneath their feet” due to global warming, and that if the fate of these creatures doesn’t move your compassion needle, perhaps a warning of climate change’s effect on human life will do the trick. In concert with sea ice, the glacial ice of Greenland — a continent one-third the size of the contiguous United States — protects the Earth by reflecting solar radiation away from the planet and preventing it from overheating. Melt all that ice, and you’ll melt even more ice, and we’ll all slow-roast together, some regions suffering more keenly than others. Something similarly dreadful is happening by way of the destruction of jungles and forests, which help stabilize Earth’s climate. Over the past 50 years, half of Borneo’s jungle has disappeared, and the surrounding islands have lost 90 percent of their plant life. By the time the documentary introduces us to the Philippine eagle, we’re so accustomed to the storytelling structure that we expect another shoe to drop, and drop it does: Only 400 of these great birds are are left alive, and poachers can’t wait to shoot the rest.
If the title Endgame weren’t already taken by a certain superhero film, it would fit here. The difference between this kind of production and older incarnations of the genre is stark. Intimations of disaster have always been present in nature documentaries, but worst-case scenarios seemed possible rather than probable, which meant few filmmakers felt the need to foreground them. In the 1970s, the most popular nature shows were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which would spend 30 minutes in the company of octopods, snow leopards, peregrine falcons, and the like, dazzling viewers with 16-mm. footage of creatures in splendid, largely unmolested natural habitats, then dash through ecological concerns in the final act — often with a stern yet vague lead-in like, “These magnificent beasts are endangered by the ultimate predator: Man.”
“What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth,” Attenborough tells us at the end of part one. But the series doesn’t get into many specifics, whether because the filmmakers wanted to use the series for spectacle and save the action memos for the website, or simply because, on some level, they fear that the next two decades will be about damage control. The facts and figures cited here — as well as the spectacular, wordless montages of environmental decay, such as the section depicting the collapse of melting glaciers — make it seem as if we all missed the cutoff point for preventing full-on environmental catastrophe and must now focus on slowing it.
Perhaps the true purpose of projects like Our Planet is to create audiovisual records to study (and mourn) at some grim future date, when most of these creatures and habitats are distant memories, and the surviving humans are hunkered down in their Mad Max shantytowns, listening to the wind scream through the salt flats where forests used to be, oiling their crossbows, and preparing for the next petrol war. No one can say we weren’t warned.