Premiering Sunday (March 21) at 8pm on the Discovery Channel in the US: Life, a new documentary miniseries from the producers of Planet Earth. Set your DVRs now!
Back in 2006, we were treated to Planet Earth, a BBC/Discovery Channel coproduction which was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first shot in full HD. It was a groundbreaking series, and for good reason -- four years of hard filming brought us spectacular photography and compelling narratives, making every one of its eleven episodes memorable. Now, four years later, the team is back with Life, a series that promises more of the same -- and boy, does it deliver. It took 70 camerapeople in 50 countries to shoot this thing. Here's the trailer:
Now, let me back up for a minute and talk about how documentary reviewing works, at least for me as a blogger. Media outlets (in my case, PBS and several science-related cable channels) send me their upcoming schedules, and I pick out shows that might interest the mental_floss audience. I ask for "screeners" (generally hand-burned DVDs, often not the final versions of the shows) which then arrive in the mail with a brief info packet, or a link to some website with PR info. I watch the DVD, and if I think it's good, I write about it. To be honest, a lot of the time the material isn't good enough to write about, and that's that. On those happy occasions when the material is good, I write it up right here.
So it was a big surprise when I got the Life press kit. Normally a press kit for a documentary is a DVD (sometimes two, if it's a two-parter) with a handmade label, and a few photocopied sheets of press info. Everything is stamped with "for press review only," has no commercial value, and so on. But the Life press kit is basically a gigantic coffee-table book with an embedded video playing device -- yes, a video screen inside the book, with speakers -- and screeners available both in DVD and Blu-ray. (See video of the kit here.) As soon as I saw the kit, I was suspicious: the kit was so elaborate that I thought either a) the film isn't that great, so it needs massive PR help; or b) the film is SUPER GREAT and Discovery is so psyched about it that they went a little nuts on the PR front. I'm pleased to announce that it's the latter -- actually watching five hours of the show (including some on Blu-ray), it is absolutely spectacular, and very much in the vein of Planet Earth. This is, hands-down, the best nature documentary you're going to see this year. It appears that the press kit is a further reflection of the focus on new technology and obsession with quality that went into the making of Life, like Planet Earth before it.
The Good News
All of the good qualities of Planet Earth are back: top-notch photography, full HD, lots of slow-motion (2,000fps, according to some producer interviews), excellent editing, and in every episode some new creature you've never heard of, doing unbelievable (and often nearly unfilmable) things. I was often left wondering how particular shots were done -- but I began to ignore that as I got sucked into the drama of events unfolding on-camera. See, Life is about living creatures, while Planet Earth was nominally about habitats (although it then focused on the creatures that live in those places, and how they've adapted -- really, the same thing is going on here, but the conceit has shifted to be animal-focused rather than habitat-focused).
For Life, the producers have found all sorts of bizarre stuff -- toads that roll into a ball and jump off cliffs to avoid being eaten by giant spiders, fish that live in underwater/underground tunnels, komodo dragons that kill water buffalo, monkeys who use tools to crack nuts. It's awe-inspiring. Here's a clip from the Reptiles & Amphibians episode -- note that this isn't the balling-up toad I mentioned; that one is shown later in the episode (yes, they found two different types of toad who use different leaping-from-heights techniques to avoid death):
Another huge bit of good news is that the HD really, really matters here. I watched several episodes on DVD and thought, yeah, that looks really good -- but then I saw one on Blu-ray and was blown away. This material shines in HD, finally giving you a good reason to have that expensive HD cable package and fancy TV.
Also, the series is family-friendly, at least for kids who are old enough to withstand scenes of animals in danger and some "light carnage" in the wild. While there are scenes of animal courtship (especially fish and birds), as well as plenty of animals eating each other, in general I think this is very appropriate for family viewing. The producers definitely have you on the edge of your seat, wondering who lives and who dies. I won't ruin it by telling you what happens -- but I will say that yes, some animals do die on-camera.
The Bad News
Like Planet Earth, Life uses different narrators for the Discovery and BBC versions. The BBC version features David Attenborough, and the Discovery version featured Oprah Winfrey. (Planet Earth used Sigourney Weaver in the US.) There was a lot of controversy and moaning about this last time around -- why not just have one narrator for both markets? (And why not have that narrator be Attenborough?) Having watched Planet Earth with both narrators and Life with just Winfrey, I have to say that Attenborough is awesome, though Winfrey isn't bad. The narrator thing isn't a dealbreaker, though I know many fans wait until the Attenborough version is available on Blu-ray to purchase the series. (I did that for Planet Earth, and plan to do so again.)
The only other complaint I can muster is that some of the material is just your typical nature documentary -- but shot in HD by some of the best photographers in the world. It's hard to say this is really a fault, but you do sometimes get into a state of overload, having seen some absurdly amazing scene of animals doing something you never expected them to do (a good example is the dolphins who create a "mud ring" to catch fish) -- after that, anything would seem plain. But so far, all the episodes I've seen have featured multiple "holy crap" moments, which make them very much worth watching. So my point is: expect a mixture of the astounding and the merely excellent; the latter bits are when you can go get more snacks.
Life is exactly what I think it should be: a continuation of Planet Earth in style, material, and quality. Given that Planet Earth was incredibly beautiful and wildly popular, you've got eleven hours of quality programming here. Add that to your Planet Earth Blu-ray set, and you've got a heck of a way to spend your weekend.
To whet your appetite further, here's a video of the producers discussing various "firsts" in the series:
Life premieres this Sunday, March 21, at 8pm on Discovery in the US. Two episodes are shown back-to-back, and another two-hour block airs a week later. Check out the full schedule on Discovery's Life site. Life has already been shown on the BBC (late in 2009), so if you want more info on specific episodes, check out that link for Wikipedia's rundown on the BBC version.