As nature documentaries go, a rather high bar has been set by the likes of the BBC’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth series, both of which have delivered the same high-end visual spectacle, affording viewers the chance to witness the splendor and diversity of nature up close and personal, without braving harsh weather conditions or putting themselves in harm’s way when it comes to bearing witness to large predators or perilous natural events. There really hasn’t been a challenger to the BBC’s crown in quite some time. Sure, National Geographic has impressed with specials like One Strange Rock and the currently airing Hostile Planet, but neither series is aiming to compete with the scale and splendor of the respective feathers in the BBC’s nature documentary cap. So, leave it to Netflix, the great internet-based disruptor of all things movies and television to do so with their stunningly ambitious nature series Our Planet.
Four years in the making, Our Planet was filmed at numerous locations around the globe, using the latest in filmmaking technology to bring breathtaking images to subscribers in stunning 4K. The series also teamed with Sir David Attenborough and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) to create an experience that was both familiar and surprisingly different than what’s come before. In other words, Our Planet didn’t just set out to clear the bar put in place by the BBC, it created an entirely new bar of its own.
That new bar relates to the manner in which the series addresses the challenges facing wildlife and the natural world as a result of human impact on the planet. This sort of content isn’t entirely new. Both Blue Planet and Planet Earth routinely devote segments to these very challenges and the footage is typically startling and depressing. But these are often just segments, footnotes almost, that can at times feel like a perfunctory addendum to an episode that has otherwise been awash in awe-inspiring footage that is, in effect, a celebration of the natural world. Our Planet, then, sets out to make that angle — the impact climate change and human interference is having on…well, our planet — the central throughline of the entire series. And it does so without rendering what is otherwise a sumptuous and exciting viewing experience as somber as a funeral.
That’s an exceedingly thin line to walk, as ominous portents do not often mix well with footage of adorable baby seals lying in the snow, or the sheer awesomeness of shoals of mackerel moving en masse to avoid a simultaneous two-pronged attack from dolphins and a startlingly large flock of sea birds. As evidenced by so much of the footage the filmmakers have captured and complied for this series, Our Planet is, if nothing else, undaunted by such a challenge.
In order to get its message across — and make it as accessible and as clear as possible — Our Planet puts those likely thousands of hours of footage to good use by actually showing viewers the effects of the changes facing wildlife around the globe. The first episode, ‘One Planet’ takes a macro approach to both the grandness of the filmmaking on display and the enormity of the impact humankind and climate change has and is having on the planet. The evidence isn’t just compelling, it’s often startling. The episode circumnavigates the globe in the better part of an hour — subsequent episodes focus on particular regions, like ‘Frozen Worlds,’ ‘Jungles,’ ‘Coastal Seas,’ etc. — following flamingoes compelled by unknown forces to flock to a desert in Africa, just when torrential rains hit, before moving north to watch dwindling caribou herds as they migrate through the Arctic.
Through it all, Attenborough informs the audience that the caribou numbers have declined by a staggering 70 percent in the last two decades, and that changing conditions in Africa have forced the flamingoes and their young to make a harrowing trek more than 50 miles on foot to find fresh water. In order to hammer the point home, Attenborough’s comments are reinforced with footage depicting precisely what he’s talking about. It’s a powerful one-two punch that will likely hit viewers right in the breadbasket.
Where Our Planet excels, though, is in its presentation. It’s not trying to convince anyone of anything — the time for doing that is long past. It’s simply stating this information as fact, in as straightforward a manner as possible. Not that it’s particularly difficult considering the evidence the series has on hand. Watching nearly 75 million tons of ice break free from a glacier and spill into the ocean is both a grand spectacle and a powerful call to action. Though it delivers some truly breathtaking, informative, and entertaining footage of the natural world and its myriad inhabitants, the explicit environmental message may well be the series’ biggest and most important selling point.
Our Planet season 1 will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning April 5, 2019.