There are many moments in Life, the followup to Planet Earth, that just have to be fake. They look so perfect, so surreal and so crazy that there's no way that they aren't made with computers. But they're all real.
Planet Earth was a groundbreaking documentary when it was released in 2006 by the BBC. It took four years to film, and it was the most expensive documentary series every commissioned by the BBC. It was also the first to be shot in high definition. It's since been re-released here in the States by the Discovery Channel and been re-edited into the Disney documentary Earth. Planet Earth Blu-rays are pretty much the ultimate "check out my new HDTV" material, better than any action movie.
And so now four years later the BBC has its follow-up in Life. Commissioned before Planet Earth was released, it topped its predecessors budget while increasing its scope. Its 10 hour-long episodes cover all of the major life forms on the planet, and it is absolutely incredible.
Life includes numerous firsts, both in how it was shot and what it shows. It used gyroscopic stabilisation to allow them to keep cameras steady in vehicles, even on bumpy terrain, to allow them to track alongside travelling herds of animals. They used tiny HD cameras to capture insects and butterflies. There's a great article in the NY Times today about how the cameramen worked that's definitely worth checking out.
And the stuff that they capture with these incredible cameras and setups are most definitely things you have never, ever seen before. They use amazing slow motion to show us how animals move like never before, and stunning closeups on tiny creatures that gets you closer than you thought was possible. And then there's just the things they capture that no one has captured before, like a gigantic Komodo dragon taking down a huge water buffalo. You can't help but gasp.
What's striking is just how other-worldly many of these animals are. We assume most animals are stupid and simple, but it's far from the truth. The forms some of these creatures take and what they do in order to survive is just incredible. How did a frog learn to continuously bring fresh pockets of air in its mouth to its buried eggs so they wouldn't suffocate? How did that other frog learn to turn itself into a bouncy ball and roll down hills away from danger? Seriously, who knew that frogs were so crazy? Seeing the amazing things that they do to survive gives you a new-found respect for them.
Sure, if you've seen all of Planet Earth you might feel a hint of familiarity with Life, as you've seen this style of documentary before. But Life continues where Planet Earth left off, and if it didn't mess with the formula at all it's because that formula is damn near perfect.
The series will be airing on the Discovery channel in the US starting this Sunday at 8pm (it aired on BBC late last year) and will be coming to DVD and Blu-ray soon. A word of advice for those waiting for the Blu-rays: David Attenborough's narration in the BBC version is replaced with narration by Oprah in the Discovery version. The video is the same, but the voices are different. It's not a huge deal, but given the choice I'd take Attenborough's excited professorial narration over Oprah's fake drama any day of the week. So look for the BBC version on Blu-ray if you can.