Narrated by: Oprah Winfrey
Running time: 484 minutes
In Planet Earth, we brought you the world as you’ve never seen it before. Now, get closer with Life.
Four years in the making, filmed over 3000 days, across every continent and in every habitat, with breathtaking new high definition filming techniques developed since Planet Earth, Life presents 103 incredible stories from the frontiers of the natural world, 54 of which have never been filmed before. Packaged with excitement, revelation and entertainment, this remarkable 11-part blockbuster, narrated by Oprah Winfrey, captures unprecedented, astonishingly beautiful sequences and demonstrates the spectacular and extraordinary tactics animals and plants have developed to survive and thrive.
Fans of Planet Earth or the BBC’s Natural History Unit in general will be floored by most aspects of the team’s latest oeuvre. Life boasts even better images than its award-winning predecessor, but with fewer epic vistas. Here, the team has honed its famous vision, bringing the scope down into the world of individual animals and plants, to explore how various species have developed ways to survive, feed and successfully reproduce in a world full of other beings that are hell-bent on killing them.
Life starts off with a bang; a trio of cheetahs have tossed tradition on its ear after somehow discovering that teamwork brings success. Using a distract-and-strike technique, the three cats bring down one of the local ostriches, which are generally way too big and ornery for any one cheetah to handle.
What does this say about the adaptability of the normally-solitary cheetah? Probably a lot. In fact, The concept of animals as learners that develop new ways (and sometimes tools) to thrive is a thread that weaves throughout the series: a group of bottlenose dolphins have learned to use the shallow waters of Florida Bay to trap mullet; tufted capuchins in Brazil have learned to crack open a kind of tough nut by peeling it, letting it dry in the sun for a week, then taking it to a certain stone to bash it open with another specific stone; lammergeiers (which are a kind of big, nasty Ethiopian vulture) grab the bones from carcasses, fly high, aim carefully and throw them at certain flat-topped rocks below so they can get at the marrow inside.
Throughout, George Fenton’s musical score is less sweeping than his work on Planet Earth, but shows more sensitivity — which is only to be expected, considering the different scale of the production. The sound and imagery work seamlessly to bring the utter majesty of the natural world home. It’s hard to watch Life without going animist. It’s also hard to maintain the old way of looking at the animal world as a population of stupid beasts.
So, Life has all the makings of a fantastic viewing experience: The cinematography, the editing and the fabulous score all show the BBC Natural History Unit to be at the top of its game. So, the Discovery Channel’s decision to mess with near perfection by re-dubbing the narration is… well, baffling. Is it the result of the decades Disney has spent teaching American kids that evil strikes with a wicked laugh and a British accent? Or is it part of the same Hollywood dumbing-down that had Harry Potter looking for the Sorcerer’s Stone in the States while he searched out the Philosopher’s Stone everywhere else? A sign of the growing insularity of the American media? No matter which combination it is, the fact is that the Discovery edition comes off as a slightly low-rent version of this masterfully-done series.
For those who don’t know, the US Discovery Channel has a habit of replacing Sir David Attenborough’s able and authoritative narration with high-stature Hollywood voices for a little star power. For Planet Earth, it was Sigourny Weaver; for Life, Oprah Winfrey. The problem is that Sir David’s got natural history cred to spare; when he narrates, you can hear that he lives and breathes this stuff. Oprah’s a slightly left-of-centre talk show host, and though she tries to bring the show a little gravitas, one is still left with the feeling that she’s a little out of her league.
One other small niggle pertains to the fades to commercial that happen throughout. In this era of producing television with a Blu-ray release firmly in mind, would it have been so hard to have an identical BD/DVD-specific edit without the fades? The fade to commercial is frankly jarring in the context of an evening spent with the Blu-ray player and a bowl of popcorn.
So, though Life gets full marks for being simply amazing, the narration and pointless fades grate on the nerves.
Crave Factor – 7
Is it really possible to get better images than those in Planet Earth? Yes, yes it is. For Life, the producers took the skills they developed for previous shows and expanded them, moving in closer with cameras hooked to cables with bicycle wheels and other contraptions, or dunked into waters all over the globe to get some of the most impressive footage ever shot. And of course, there is plenty of the fabulous aerial photography that made Planet Earth so stunning. Onscreen, these efforts really pay off, especially when paired with the awesome power of Blu-ray.
Crave Factor – 10
Across the board, the DTS HD sound quality and editing is on par with the visuals, though the sound effects are occasionally a little too much. The sound is crisp and bell-clear, and the music and narration are well-placed in the mix.
Crave Factor – 8
On the extras front, this set echoes the Planet Earth DVD set (though stupidly, not the Blu-ray edition), in that each episode is accompanied by a short, standard-def Life on Location episode. These shorts delve into the frankly ingenious ways the teams dealt with some of the issues that come up when your job is to change the face of the documentary film tradition. The last disc also includes a more general The Making of Life feature, and some deleted scenes, both of which make for great viewing.
Crave Factor – 8
Menu & packaging
The packaging for the Discovery edition gets a glitzy, reflective treatment on the box cover. Inside is a cool, hardback “book” that holds four Blu-ray discs and a few pages of wildlife photography. All in all, it’s a pleasing treatment, though it lacks the class of the BBC Edition.
The text on the back of the box, on the other hand, is a roiling disaster of comma splices and messy grammar It shows the same semi-literate marketing-level English as so many books and movies do today, and it’s frankly embarrassing. Plus, the text calls the show a “remarkable 11-part blockbuster, ” which could only be correct if this was a film rather than a TV series, and if it wasn’t 10 episodes long.
The menus are the usual BBC style; there’s no real flash to either the popup or top menu, but both show the same simple, classy treatment as those of Planet Earth and Iain Stewart’s fabulous Earth: The Biography.
Crave Factor – 6
Conclusions & Final Thoughts
Look, this show is simply beautiful and historical in the same way as Planet Earth was. It cost a mint to make, and was generally worth every penny. That being said, the Discovery Channel version is not the best version for your money. So, though Life itself is absolutely worth the purchase price, do yourself a favour and spend your money on the straight-up BBC edition.