I finished watching the BBC’s Planet Earth 2. From a photographer’s perspective it was, of course, an incredible achievement. I enjoyed watching it immensely. You could grab dozens of 4k frames from the best sequences – of snow leopards in the Himalaya, of lions hunting a giraffe, of Komodo dragons fighting – and have a career’s worth of classic images. At such time as mere mortals can capture raw video at 4k or higher resolution it’s clearly the way to go for fast moving wildlife spectacles. (As long as you can nail focus, which even the BBC crews failed to manage on occasion!)
I thought the single best sequence was that of snakes pursuing iguanas on the Galapagos. Apart from being a genuinely new (and somewhat horrifying) thing to see, the coverage and editing here really did create the “cinematic” feeling that was apparently one of the goals of the show.
The use of new technology was a mixed bag. The very extensive deployment of remote cameras fleshed out the snow leopard sequence and was essential for telling a story, but the human-shot footage of leopards fighting was the highlight. And the use of drones was more sparing that I expected. If you’re the BBC, you have the resources (and ability to gain permission) to seek new unobstructed angles from the air for days on end, but that ability wasn’t really showcased here.
Where Planet Earth 2 disappointed was as a set of films. Whether deliberately or not, the individual sequences worked best as You Tube clips, and could have been edited together in random order to almost interchangeable result. If there was any guiding creative vision behind the series it was certainly not evident in the banal narration, which while avoiding the worst of the anthropomorphism seen in some previous series did little beyond furnishing a random collection of interesting facts. In southern Africa, we saw tourist T-shirts everywhere with the cliched nugget of wisdom:
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
…and that pretty much sums up the level of scientific understanding Planet Earth 2 seemed to be striving for. Which is a tremendous shame. Apart from the fact that lots of people don’t understand the first thing about Darwin, there’s been a revolution in the years since David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” in understanding evolution (not least from a genetic perspective) that could have been told here. There’s been an even more profound change in our view of environmental issues, but apart from various disconnected mentions of global warming any environmental message was also missing in action. Particularly jarring was the “Cities” episode, which by focusing on a handful of examples (pigeons, monkeys in an Indian temple) managed to obscure what is surely the tremendous damage done to the natural world through urbanization. Moreover the stand-out sequence in “Cities” – of leopards hunting in Mumbai – was photographically stunning but borderline culturally insensitive… I doubt the BBC would be celebrating the co-existence of humans and large predators if the latter were injuring hundreds of people in London.
The producers of the original Planet Earth are making “Our Planet” for Netflix in 2019, no doubt with an even bigger budget. Surely they will capture some even more amazing footage, I hope in the service of a compelling scientific, environmental, or orther story they want to tell.