by Allan Fish
(UK 2006 550m) DVD1/2
The greatest cathedral of all
p Vanessa Berlowitz, Shannon C.Malone, Alastair Fothergill d Alastair Fothergill w David Attenborough ph Michael Kelem, Doug Anderson, Peter Kragh, Andrew Shillabeer ed Thom Sulek, Andy Netley m George Fenton, Sam Watts
narrated by David Attenborough
When writing about The Blue Planet, which the same team released to an awe-struck world in 2001, I remember calling it Attenborough’s crowning achievement. And indeed it probably was up to that point. In the decade since we have had several further natural history masterclasses from the great Sir David and his collaborator Alastair Fothergill, but of those the one that ranks highest, alongside if not above The Blue Planet, has to be their series entitled simply Planet Earth.
It consists of just eleven episodes, whose first ‘From Pole to Pole’ essentially acts as the prologue, introducing many of the creatures and habitats we will encounter one by one as the series progresses through the remaining ten – ‘Mountains, Fresh Water, Caves, Deserts, Ice Worlds, Great Plains, Jungles, Shallow Seas, Seasonal Forests and Ocean Deep’.
One of the criticisms, if that’s the right word, sometimes levelled at Sir David’s work is a sense of repetition, a feeling that what’s changing isn’t so much what is being told us, but how pretty the pictures are that are being shown us. Indeed, this was the first series to really showcase the benefits of Hi-Def photography – though the Blu Ray, while showing these sequences wonderfully, also shows up the upscaled scenes shot in ordinary definition. This ‘seen one, seen them all’ mentality does seem cynical in the extreme, especially when one considers how the natural world, especially its wildlife, is changing almost day by day, as whole species and habitats are in danger of being wiped out by mankind’s selfishness. So we can savour the images that dazzle us, of the Great Barrier Reef in minute detail, of caves deep underground with crystal-like structures as delicate as snowflakes, of the time lapse shots of cherry blossoms blooming in Japanese spring. And then the incredible shots, in various speeds, of the animals themselves; of amur leopards in the Russian frozen wastelands, of elephants swimming underwater, of a great white shark diving above the water in a surprise attack, or snow leopards hunting Markhor on the rocky slopes of the Himalayas. Yet if I had to name one image to lodge in the memory banks above all, it would be a shot of elephants tussling before cutting to sunrise over the Antarctic ice-floe, and over a natural sculpture in which one almost allows our senses to be deceived into thinking it an actual modern ice sculpture of the self-same elephants.
While animal and plant life lies at the heart of the series, snippets of geology and even human geography and history are thrown into the mix. So we are astonished by shots of Monument Valley in Utah, staggering despite its familiar iconography to the American western, and also to the abandoned temples of the Maya in the Yucatan jungle. It’s documentaries such as these indeed that have, in their way, vindicated what once seemed insanity in Andy Warhol when he made films such as Empire in real-time. The mistake he made was to stick a camera and point it at something and play it back in spirit-crushing real-time. Fifty years on, time lapse work of this beauty and detail is enough to make one feel like a painting is being created in front of our eyes. And the fragile nature of that beauty, the delicate balance of natural harmony, is at the heart of Attenborough’s message. In one episode we see a picture of a giant panda cradling her cub, an image so simple yet so powerful as to make one ashamed, and this message of man’s destruction of nature underscores the whole series, right until the ending, as one knew it always would, with those elusive giants of The Blue Planet, the blue whales. “We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours” Attenborough tells us at the fadeout. His programmes should make the decision for us.