Hans Zimmer’s score—cymbal swashes of ecstasy and racing violins for the bottlenose dolphins, electro-orchestral groans for something ugly and unredeemed on the ocean floor—has been much praised. But I prefer the weird snickerings and intestinal booms of the sea dwellers themselves, the strange, submarine synth-pop we hear when the Zimmer-noise fades. Scenes of tremendous grandeur, thrashing pods of orcas, are switched dizzyingly with Attenborough’s other specialty: the vignettes, the micronarratives. Two shrimp, a male and a female, are delicately imprisoned inside a sea sponge. They drifted in there as larvae, and now they’re too big to swim out. As a couple, they while away their incarceration. They seem happy, perhaps exemplary. In the Great Barrier Reef, a scowling grouper and an octopus team up as hunting buddies. The grouper sniffs out fish, and the penetrative octopus flushes them from their coral caves. Then there’s the bobbit, the disgusting fringed worm (cue Zimmerian squirmings) who strikes upward from the seabed before reinterring himself like a serial killer. A gang of plucky, schoolboyishly twitchy little fish gathers to blow on his sand-hole and expose him.
But beyond a certain depth, we can no longer anthropomorphize: The unconscious opens up, the realm of pure symbol. “As we descend into the deep,” Attenborough whispers, in a reverie, “the pressure increases relentlessly, and the light from above all but disappears. Yet, incredibly, there is life.” The beings in the “giant black void,” “the midnight zone” of the polar seas, make their own light and use it to communicate. They make their own hours, too. “Down here in this blackness, creatures live beyond the normal rules of time.” The siphonophore, a floating, feathery colony of connected organisms that resembles a 100-foot-long DNA strand, is self-cloning and “virtually eternal.” Should we be here at all, with our cameras, with our eyes? Watching a group of six-gill sharks in slow, butting, dream-thickened combat over the sunken carcass of a sperm whale—the release of stale blood, the cold skin in tatters—feels profane, a trespass upon this piece of ultimately inhuman, bottom-of-the-universe business.
In the end, though, it all comes back to us. “It’s now increasingly apparent,” Attenborough said back in 2000, in a three-parter called State of the Planet, “that one species, our own, has developed the unique ability of so altering its surroundings that it can destroy whole species, indeed whole environments.” Too well-bred to be an eco-warrior, he has nevertheless achieved—via the forensic zoom-ins and transcontinental pannings of his unstoppable camera crews—a holistic, and holistically horrified, global vision. The images accumulate in Blue Planet II: Walrus struggle, with failing strength, at the edge of melting ice chunks; an albatross vomits up a plastic bag; the milk of a mother dolphin might be poisoned, toxic to her calf. Our side effects, our by-products, the exhaust of our lifestyles, are blinding the ocean’s eye. “I cried in my mask,” an Australian diver says in the final episode, describing his encounter with the dead tusks of bleached-out coral that now form much of the Great Barrier Reef.