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In Review

Planet Earth

Produced by BBC Films and the Discovery Channel. Narrated by David Attenborough. Five DVDs.

Dig deep into your imagination, and please remember, there are no right answers. If you could build something – anything – what would it be? Would you craft a human flying machine with mechanized pelican wings so you would be able to glide effortlessly above your town? Or would you build something more useful? A solar-powered car or wind turbine to enhance our renewable energy programs? What could you build? How far does your imagination go? Could you build the Earth?

For millennia, humans have mined the deepest trenches of creativity to design things so hyperbolical that the results range from practical to exhaustively unnecessary to lethally dangerous. Last night, as I stared at my cinder block-shaped television, I fell awe-inspired by the images on the illuminated box in front of me. Over the past five years, the BBC and the Discovery Channel have sought out the most remote, bizarre, miraculous, frightful, audacious, dangerous, civil, reflective, and truly sexy places this glimmering planet has to offer. Originally aired as a television series and produced with a $25 million budget, “Planet Earth” was filmed in 63 countries and more than 200 locations. It has now been packaged as a five-DVD set with segments so full of shocking footage that it will undoubtedly force you to repeatedly remark out loud and point at the screen. 

“Planet Earth,” with its quiet and firm narrator David Attenborough, re-routes the senses and compels thought well beyond the images on screen. There is a moment in which the camera traces the edges of a bristlecone pine, a high-altitude tree in the North American Rockies. As the tree takes center stage, Attenborough informs us that this particular tree was rooted in its current spot before the pyramids were built and 3,000 years before Christ. The scale and scope of “Planet Earth” is truly astonishing. And what else astounds us today with all of our IMAX, hyper-special effects, television wars, and the compartmentalization of everything into a manageable box called science? Our imagination would be stumped to dream up these images, and we experience a visceral awakening as the documentary stirs the sleeping memories in our prehistoric atoms.

“Planet Earth” is not a typical nature series. A crew of tech-savvy divers, climbers, spelunkers, and fearless film pioneers risk limbs, skip holidays with family, and wither from boredom waiting to capture perfect images of the most inhospitable phenomena on the planet. Eleven episodes move us through worlds and angles unnoticed by the planet’s bloated population of more than six billion human inhabitants. You will gaze for the first time into the eyes of the mythical snow leopard, be dazzled by a crystalline chandelier cave, witness a wildebeest migration from above, swim upstream with a grizzly bear feasting on spawning salmon, and plummet into the black underwater realm of the incandescent vampire squid. “Planet Earth” offers nothing if not perspective; it transcends the limitations of the unaided human experience through an almost psychedelic portrayal of time and space.

A captivating anthropomorphism grips you as you observe the gelada baboon, a primate living in the Ethiopian highlands. It gossips as it picks through a partner’s hair with hands that project five capable fingers very much like our own. There is a fungus that grows on the jungle floor that controls insect populations. There are lemurs that live in the baobab trees of Madagascar and sip nectar from the tree’s flowers, then provide a reciprocal service by spreading pollen collected on their fur. “Planet Earth” amplifies our attention to the whole-systems functionality of the natural world, and processes so efficient and balanced that it leaves one questioning the inexplicable rift between humans and this spectacular design. By unearthing the intelligence of the nonhuman world that our lifestyle makes so difficult to understand, the episodes use the gaze of the leopard, the grasp of the monkey, and the maternal care of the panda bear to bridge the gap between us and other species.

Although an expression of the world’s most advanced technologies, the film moves us beyond the screen and back to our natural inheritance. “Planet Earth” is a celebration of the planet’s 4.6 billion years and a chance for humankind to find its way back to the herd.

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