Planet Earth, The Island of Life


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series, Significant Films of the 2000s, of articles about the cultural significance of films that were released between 2000 and 2009.

Planet Earth Still The Planet Earth documentary series was a massive undertaking. It was developed as a television program by the BBC Natural History Unit. Technically it’s not a film. But looking at the grandeur of the production—years of planning, incredible cinematography, worldwide locations, and international marketing—thrusts the series into the realm of films. My only complaint with the series is that while the filmmakers captured astonishing footage, the narrator mentions it too frequently. “This is the first time this has ever been captured on film” is a recurring line in the scripts.

But the footage is astonishing. Forty cameramen working over five years and across two hundred locations took some of the most beautiful nature footage of the decade.

The series first aired on the BBC in 2006. In 2007, a companion film, Earth, was released in theaters. Earth Day 2009 saw a re-release of Earth as part of Disney’s nature documentary program.

The Planet Earth box set is the scope of what I’ll be considering for this article. The set includes the eleven episodes of the series along with the three additional episodes of the companion series, Planet Earth: The Future. These two documentaries cover issues of saving wildlife, conserving the wilderness, and living sustainably. The DVDs also include an episode of Planet Earth: Diaries for each episode. Each of these ten-minute featurettes show how the crew was able to capture such remarkable footage.

Each episode is fifty minutes long totaling over nine hours of runtime for the series proper not including the length of Planet Earth: The Future or the Planet Earth: Diaries. The first documentary is an overview of the diversity of Earth titled “From Pole to Pole.” The rest of the series devotes an episode to the following ecosystems:

  • Mountains
  • Fresh Water
  • Caves
  • Deserts
  • Ice Worlds
  • Great Plains
  • Jungles
  • Shallow Seas
  • Seasonal Forests
  • Ocean Deep

Life Is the Key

Planet Earth Still The keyword for this series is life. The series exposes how the creatures of this planet are in a constant state of preserving their own life. Our planet receives energy from the sun. The plants take sunlight and convert it to a stored form of energy, and from there it spreads through the food chain. Whether it’s the Bactrian camel of the Gobi Desert or the spider crab along the ocean floor, all creatures in this series work to collect food without becoming food themselves.

No species is immortal. Life everywhere works to produce offspring to ensure their species continues. The Earth is the inheritance of our offspring. Considering these goals, we as humans are not so different from the plants and animals we share the Earth with.

What an Honor

As I watch this series, I can’t help but think of what an honor it is to see the breadth of creation in my living room. Being a person who grew up with television, I’ve had images from around the world beamed into my life since before I can remember. Seeing endangered animals without leaving my home? I’ve grown to take it for granted.

Bosch But this is a relatively new convenience. A favorite painter of mine, Hieronymus Bosch, didn’t have this luxury. Bosch was born around 1550 in what is now part of the Netherlands. In his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch painted a scene from the Garden of Eden. He depicts the garden with exotic animals including a giraffe. When you look at the giraffe, you can tell what it’s supposed to be, but it’s like Bosch was painting the animal from a description or another illustration. It’s unlikely that Bosch ever saw a giraffe.

When I think about it like that, it reminds me of how privileged I am. I can see the majesty of creation from my sofa. That is fantastic.

What We Feel

As emotional beings we remember what we feel better than what we know. In the June 2010 issue of Wired magazine, writer Erin Biba nails the problem on the head. “Scientists feel the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.”

About two years ago I watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Honestly, the only thing I remember from that film is that Al Gore showed his data with a very fancy presentation program. But he presented lots of data, lots of charts, lots of numbers. I don’t remember any of the facts he showed. I don’t remember anything substantial about the film.

Planet Earth Still But Planet Earth appeals to my heart. I’ll forget numbers, but seeing a mother polar bear bringing her babies onto the ice for the first time? That’s something I’ll remember. Watching the cubs get their footing for the first time on an icy slope. That pulls my heartstrings. They’re cute little things! It’s much more memorable to show the things that make me feel instead of blast me with facts.

Our Place in the World

I’ve only visited a small portion of this planet. I’ve never been to a rain forest. I’ve never been to a pole. In fact, I’ve never been to the southern hemisphere. There are many places I’ve never been, but they are part of my world—part of the miraculous island of life we live on.

In the follow up to the series, Planet Earth: The Future, Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says “Wilderness always speaks to human beings of transcendence in the widest possible sense. It says, ‘You as a human being are part of a system which is not just about your needs and your concerns. Like it or not, you’re part of something immense and very mysterious.’”

Watching this series reminds me that there are places where life is totally different than my home. I’m from Oklahoma. Here the sun rises overhead on its daily journey—starting in the east and reaching the western horizon at the close of day.

Planet Earth Still Watching “Pole to Pole,” I’m reminded that there are places in the world without daily sunsets. When the sun does rise in these polar regions, it stretches across the sky horizontally, not vertically. During the summer, it does not set. Depending on the time of year, it may not show each day at all. It’s something I’ve never experienced, but it is still part of my world.

Beauty of Creation

Planet Earth Still There is no doubt that the Earth is glorious, but it is also beautiful in its bizarreness. To me the strangest chapter in the Planet Earth series is in the “Jungles” documentary. The program focuses on the bullet ants of the rainforests. These ants occasionally become infected with the spores of a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps. This fungus will infect the brain of an ant and cause the insect to go insane. The ant will climb up to a high perch, cling to a branch with its mandible, and die there. Once the ant is dead, the fungus begins to grow out of the head of the ant. In a few weeks the fungus will release spores from this height to infect more ants to begin its lifecycle again. Through the fantastic use of time-lapse filming, we’re able to watch the fungus emerge from the ant. The actual growth can take up to three weeks. Planet Earth shows the event much more briefly.

Planet Earth in Real Definition

The footage in Planet Earth is astounding. This is some of the most compelling video I have ever seen. However, beautiful footage captured on some of the most advanced cameras in existence can’t fully deliver the beauty of nature. I enjoy being in nature. High definition can’t recreate the feeling of a breeze over my skin while I watch the sunset at the lake or the coolness of moist soil on my hands while gardening.

Animals don’t have to be exotic or endangered to be fascinating. While planting roses, I uncovered earthworms that danced wildly before tunneling back into the soil. It reminded me that under my urban landscape there is a whole ecosystem of burrowers and bacteria that I’m sharing the land with. How many days have I walked over their world without giving any thought to their existence?

While I hold that Planet Earth is one of the most important productions of the decade, I enjoy evenings with the sunset more than evenings in front of my television.

Do you know which plants and animals are native to your region? Which wildflowers are your favorites?

Daniel J. Lay lives in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He grew up in the country north of Tulsa where he spent countless hours playing in the mud and climbing trees. These days he enjoys brightly colored insects and sunsets at the lake. Leeches fascinate him too.
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