Onscreen eagles lock talons in aerial combat, and humpback whales engulf herring by the shoal. Birds of paradise, hunting dogs, leafcutter ants—they’re all there. This is Our Planet—Netflix’s new, big-budget nature documentary—and, without the sound on, viewers could easily think that they’re watching Planet Earth III.
The resemblance to the oeuvre of the BBC’s renowned Natural History Unit is striking. The series is produced by Alastair Fothergill, who was also responsible for the original Planet Earth. Everything is narrated by David Attenborough, whose unctuous tones, somehow both silky and gravelly, have become synonymous with wildlife films.
But this time, the messages delivered by that familiar voice are different. Here, much of the awe is tinged with guilt, the wonder with concern, the entertainment with discomfort.
Repeatedly, unambiguously, and urgently, Our Planet reminds its viewers that the wonders they are witnessing are imperiled by human action. After seeing a pair of mating fossas—a giant, lemur-hunting, Madagascan mongoose—we’re told that the very forests we just saw have since been destroyed. After meeting the endearing orangutans Louie, Eden, and Pluto, we are told that 100 of these apes die every week through human activity. We see Borneo’s jungle transforming into oil-palm monocultures in a time-lapse shot that is almost painful to watch. We’re told that Louie and Eden’s generation could be the last for wild orangutans.
If you muted the series, it would look almost identical to any other wildlife documentary. You could sit back, content and relaxed, gawping at nature’s splendor. But Our Planet seems to have no interest in letting you be contented. Though the film is still entertaining and beautiful, its narration imparts its shots with a more complex emotional flavor. It’s like watching an American drug ad during which a voice-over reads out lists of horrific side effects over footage of frolicking, picnicking families.
Frankly, it’s about time.
The BBC’s natural-history series have been a gift, enchanting tens of millions of viewers with nature’s wonders. But the shows have also been criticized for whitewashing the decline of the creatures they feature. Disappearing species, shrinking habitats, spreading diseases, accumulating pollutants, changing climates—Planet Earth obliquely hinted at these problems in its final line. “We can now destroy or we can cherish: The choice is ours.”
Frozen Planet, a tour of polar fauna, saved its talk of climate change for its final, seventh episode—and Fothergill told me he had to fight for even that. “There has been a habit of having a 45-minute show where we say that everything’s fine, and in the last five minutes, we say there’s a problem,” he said. “I think that’s a little bit trite. It doesn’t deal with the issue.”
After Planet Earth II repeated some of these problems, the natural-history-film producer Martin Hughes-Games wrote that by showing a pristine world without context, these series are “lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security.” The rejoinder has always been that warnings would dissuade viewers. “Every time that image [of a threatened animal] comes up, do you say ‘remember, they are in danger’?” Attenborough asked in an interview with The Observer. “How often do you say this without becoming a real turn-off?”
The answer from last year’s Blue Planet II—still the greatest nature series of all time—was at least once an episode. The answer from Our Planet is repeatedly, in shot after shot. It does what no other natural-history documentary has done. It forces viewers to acknowledge their own complicity in the destruction of nature, in the moment. It feels sad, but also right.
That’s not to say that Our Planet is a dour, finger-wagging downer—far from it. It is hard not to cheer as an initially incompetent Philippines eagle takes her first flight, or laugh as a tree shrew uses a pitcher plant as a toilet, or marvel at two Arabian leopards meeting and mating—1 percent of the species’ surviving individuals, perhaps creating a few more. We’re treated to a rare glimpse of the oarfish, a luminescent, serpentine creature that looks as if it has swum out of mythology. We witness the improbably complex dance of the western parotia, a bird of paradise that almost single-handedly justifies the entire group’s name. Most of the series is still joyful, but it is never allowed to be naively so.
“The only reason I worked on this project was that, from day one, conservation was part of it,” says Sophie Lanfear of Silverback Films, who produced the second episode, about polar life. “It had to be the heart of every episode.” This commitment is framed from the opening seconds of the first episode, as the camera pans over the pockmarked surface of the moon to reveal the Earth, and Attenborough intones:
Just 50 years ago, we finally ventured to the moon. For the very first time, we looked back at our own planet. Since then, the human population has more than doubled. This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain and reveal what we must preserve to ensure that people and nature thrive.
That remain! What you’re seeing is what is left to see.
The message is clear. It’s bad. It’s urgent. It’s our fault. We can still fix it. Our Planet is a eulogy, a confession, a slap on the wrist, a call to arms. (The task of offering actionable advice is outsourced to the series’ website.)
There is optimism, too. Amid doom-laden warnings, the documentary highlights success stories in which conservation measures have allowed species to start bouncing back. When we watch five cheetah siblings do their best lion impressions and cooperatively bring down a wildebeest, Attenborough tells us that we get to enjoy such dramas only because the Serengeti has been protected for decades. And in a sequence of unexpected poignancy, wild horses, foxes, and wolves are seen thriving among the ruins of Chernobyl, the radiation a minor inconvenience compared with the boon of human absence. “In driving us out, the radiation has created space for wildlife to return,” Attenborough says.
The series isn’t faultless. Some episodes still feel as disjointed as those of Planet Earth II did, with few narrative threads connecting the individual sequences. There are a few minor but weird mistakes: Orangutans are described as our ancestors when they’re our distant cousins, and phytoplankton are called plants when most are nothing of the kind. And the score never goes for a subtle musical cue when a saccharine one will do.
But these are small gripes for a series that audaciously treads where its predecessors have feared, and sets the bar for its successors. “Five years ago, when we started on this journey, it was always hard to get environmental programming onto prime time,” Fothergill said. “That’s definitely changed. Even the BBC are now saying that they want environmental messaging in their programs.” While seeing elephants, we will finally hear about the elephant in the room. And not a moment too soon.
All Rights Reserved for Ed Yong