If you muted the series, it would look almost identical to any other wildlife documentary. You could sit back, content and relaxed, gawping at nature’s splendor. But Our Planet seems to have no interest in letting you be contented. Though the film is still entertaining and beautiful, its narration imparts its shots with a more complex emotional flavor. It’s like watching an American drug ad during which a voice-over reads out lists of horrific side effects over footage of frolicking, picnicking families.
Frankly, it’s about time.
The BBC’s natural-history series have been a gift, enchanting tens of millions of viewers with nature’s wonders. But the shows have also been criticized for whitewashing the decline of the creatures they feature. Disappearing species, shrinking habitats, spreading diseases, accumulating pollutants, changing climates—Planet Earth obliquely hinted at these problems in its final line. “We can now destroy or we can cherish: The choice is ours.”
Read: “Planet Earth II” puts stunning images above all else
Frozen Planet, a tour of polar fauna, saved its talk of climate change for its final, seventh episode—and Fothergill told me he had to fight for even that. “There has been a habit of having a 45-minute show where we say that everything’s fine, and in the last five minutes, we say there’s a problem,” he said. “I think that’s a little bit trite. It doesn’t deal with the issue.”
After Planet Earth II repeated some of these problems, the natural-history-film producer Martin Hughes-Games wrote that by showing a pristine world without context, these series are “lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security.” The rejoinder has always been that warnings would dissuade viewers. “Every time that image [of a threatened animal] comes up, do you say ‘remember, they are in danger’?” Attenborough asked in an interview with The Observer. “How often do you say this without becoming a real turn-off?”
The answer from last year’s Blue Planet II—still the greatest nature series of all time—was at least once an episode. The answer from Our Planet is repeatedly, in shot after shot. It does what no other natural-history documentary has done. It forces viewers to acknowledge their own complicity in the destruction of nature, in the moment. It feels sad, but also right.
That’s not to say that Our Planet is a dour, finger-wagging downer—far from it. It is hard not to cheer as an initially incompetent Philippines eagle takes her first flight, or laugh as a tree shrew uses a pitcher plant as a toilet, or marvel at two Arabian leopards meeting and mating—1 percent of the species’ surviving individuals, perhaps creating a few more. We’re treated to a rare glimpse of the oarfish, a luminescent, serpentine creature that looks as if it has swum out of mythology. We witness the improbably complex dance of the western parotia, a bird of paradise that almost single-handedly justifies the entire group’s name. Most of the series is still joyful, but it is never allowed to be naively so.