Where the prudent might balk at sending top-of-the-line high definition cameras to steam in jungles, drown in oceans and freeze in the Arctic, the BBC committed itself to the four-year project of preserving images of the world. Though patient (the crew infamously spent three weeks in a bunker to record just one bird of paradise mating dance), the project was born of paranoia. Bear witness to the icebergs now, or risk finding only ice cubes. Though the project avoids playing doomsayer, by existing, it’s political. To watch the majesty of a shark snapping up a seal, or a panoramic time lapse of a field of trees blooming in spring and crumbling in winter, is to be struck by the fragility of life. Our responsibility to protect this ecosystem underscores every image; watching is submission to our call of duty.
Yet, Earth feels compromised where Planet Earth wasn’t. The footage is the same, with some sequences expanded. But it gloams onto the emotions like a tipsy co-worker getting too personal at an office party. Fans of the series knew David Attenborough’s U.K. narration was a cut above Sigourney Weaver’s. The words were the same, but the images needed an impersonal sheen; Weaver was fine, but too warm—she was the earth mother guiding our empathy. James Earl Jones, the narrator here, tends to a grandfatherly good humor. But by holding back, Attenborough made us reach out. The series’ signature moment was a sequence tracking a starving male polar bear across the sea to a pack of walruses—his last shot at a meal. Weakened, the predator pawed at their backs. They huddled, they panicked. And we realized we no longer knew who to root for: Death was at stalemate. In those desperate moments, we were struck by the brutal trade-off of existence, and it reflected back on our own approach to life. Who was our last meal? Whose labor got it to us? Neutrality—not opinion—provokes.
Earth isn’t neutral, and there are two choices at fault. Writer-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield—both men deserving of accolades—were convinced that audiences needed a smaller approach to the planet. Instead of presenting us the world, they offer three migrating families—polar bears, humpback whales and African elephants. In giving us families, they’ve given us cloying anthropomorphism. Where Attenborough once intoned about “a female and her pup,” we have “a mom and her daughter.” Animals are now “shes” and “hes”—their lives made suburban personal, and therefore smaller. Could this be the sticky hand of Disney? It turns the starving polar bear into a “dad,” though we never see him with his alleged cubs, and in nature, his species (like most) follows a parental model best illustrated by the Brothers Grimm. If we’re meant to care even more about his predicament, then it throws off the moral balance of his duel with the walruses, and if he fails, we’re strapped with the guilt that those two cubs, I mean “kids,” across the ice are now—gasp!—orphans.
I hope Earth makes a mint. It deserves to, if only to encourage more grand projects. But if you’ve seen the original show and just want to see it bigger, I recommend you take a cue from Pink Floyd and bring headphones cued to Dark Side of the Moon—so much the better to bliss out on beauty. (Amy Nicholson)