For the last couple of months I’ve been on a real nature film kick. Ever since visiting a recently opened aquarium that left me feeling underwhelmed with its unfortunate mediocrity (no fault of the fish, mind you) I’ve been left with a thirst to see animal life in a more exciting and visceral way. Thankfully, Netflix was good enough to offer both of the BBC’s popular Planet Earth and Life specials on streaming, so my itch was able to be scratched. But alas, as excellent as these two specials are, I had seen them before, so I was left wanting for some new material. Fortunately, I didn’t need to wait long, as the BBC has just released their newest nature documentary Planet Earth II, a series that has already been hailed as yet another groundbreaking achievement in the way animals in the wild are captured on film.
It’s been ten years since the first Planet Earth series wowed us with unbelievable looks at animals and environments that few people had seen, and Planet Earth II is no different. Ranging from volcanic islands populated with thousands of penguins to giant swarms of locust a billion strong, the breathtaking images and unbelievable camera work this series has been known for continue to impress. While there were a few segments that seemed like retreads of those seen in the original series, such as the caribou’s long land migration, the techniques used to film these events ten years later give a new perspective and an even larger appreciation than before. Put simply, the slow motion photography is magnificent. In fact, when the first instances of this starting popping up, I was left feeling a little skeptical, as the video was so crystal clear in its clarity that I thought that some computer generated trickery must have been utilized in order to achieve these effects – they’re that good. And these moments of slow motion photography are not few and far between; they are in abundance throughout the six-hour total runtime. Everything from birds snatching insects out of the air to winged geckos gliding from tree to tree are on display and do a great job of showcasing how far the technology has come in the last decade.
But cutting edge slow motion photography isn’t the only marvel that Planet Earth II has to offer. In addition to new camera innovations, they have also managed to capture rare moments that dwarf those seen in the previous series. One standout in particular is the mating ritual of the elusive snow leopards, a species few in number and scarcely seen. By leaving motion activated cameras in various locations, the film crew manages to provide a look into how these animals interact with each other and how incredibly solitary their lives are. This extended look into a specific pair of animals (in this case a mother and her cub), rather than the species as a whole gives a more intimate look into how these animals live and is a recurring element that repeats throughout the six-part series, giving the audience a more personal connection to the various animal journeys and hardships we see unfold.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what is arguably the defining new attraction for the Planet Earth series; animals in the city. For some reason, it never occurred to me that this would be something that they would ever tackle or that I would have a desire to see, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Framed as “a new habitat”, the final segment of Planet Earth II shows how animals in cities have been forced to adapt to these new and ever-growing concrete jungles. Some are shown hunting under the cover of night (the night vision leopard sequence in India another stand-out of the series), while others have adjusted and actually live in harmony with the human community, as depicted by the mass amount of monkeys that roam the streets of India and are given food by the people. Cities is truly the “main event” of the series, showing the lives of animals in the city that I doubt anyone living there had ever given a second thought.
As the final segment comes to an end, David Attenborough appears giving a message of conservation and a hope that perhaps as our cities grow larger and larger, and natural wildlife is encroached upon more and more, that hopefully we will begin to better integrate animals into our life and into our cities, better maintaining a balance of humans and animals and becoming unified with nature. It’s a message that is far more pointed than any spoken in the previous two installments, and I’m sure some may feel that they’re being preached to, but it’s a heartfelt message and one that rings true. It will be fascinating (or perhaps depressing) to see what the state of the environment and the wildlife will be in five or ten years when the BBC inevitably does its next series. Here’s hoping that David Attenborough’s message does not fall on deaf ears.
THE VIDEO – 10/10
As you’d expect from a series shot entirely in 4K, the video here is spectacular. If there are any issues it’s some very, very slight noise in some of the darker scenes, but this is so tiny a nitpick it’s barely worth noting. Color is vibrant, every shot is clear without a hint of edge enhancement, and black levels are spot on. This is one release I would actually be tempted to purchase a 4K TV for just to see in its full splendor. However, if you’re still sporting a standard Blu-ray player and 1080p TV like I am, then never fear, as the video on display is reference material in every way.
THE AUDIO – 9/10
While it may not feature too many scenes of discreet surround effects or ground pounding LFE, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is nonetheless immersive and very well mixed. Attenborough’s narration is perfectly centered and is never overbearing in volume. Animal noises, such as the various howls and even urinal sprays (yes, you read that right), are clear and crisp. And music, one of the few aspects that surrounds the listener, is booming when it needs to be and, like the narration, never feels like it overpowers any of the other elements in the track. All around a top notch listen and a perfect sonic accompaniment to the relatively low-key proceedings, but probably not something I would use if I wanted to show off my sound system.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES – 5/10
The only somewhat disappointing thing about this set. All that we get are some behind the scenes diaries after each segment (you can’t access these featurettes separately – they can only be seen at the end of each segment) that, while interesting, only cover one or a few of the particular animals or environments seen in that particular episode. None of these segments are bad in and of themselves, it’s just a shame that we couldn’t get a more in-depth look at more of the areas visited. Thankfully, the areas the diaries choose to focus on are typically the most interesting ones anyway, so at least there’s that. To be fair, though, given how good the six episodes on the discs are, it’s hard to be mad at any lack of special features, and this small oversight in no way seriously hurts how I feel about the quality of this release.
THE FINAL RATING – 9.5/10
I have to hand it to the BBC, they know how to do a nature documentary right. Featuring even more breathtaking moments and showcasing animals as never before by utilizing the latest advancements in camera technology, Planet Earth II maintains the same ridiculously high level of quality that it did before in its previous two iterations. The 1080p image maxes out the visual capabilities of Blu-ray and the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is precise and well mixed. BBC has another landmark series under their belt with this release and continues to dominate the nature documentary landscape with exquisitely produced and beautifully shot specials. If you enjoy nature films, or have recently been let down with your local aquarium like I was, then I highly recommend giving this set a purchase.