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Blu-ray Review: Life (2009) (U.S. Version)

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Life is a ten-part nature series showcasing the many and varied forms of life on Earth, and is a joint production between the BBC and the Discovery Channel. Each network has released their own variant of the program, with the Discovery Channel's version — which is the subject of this review — featuring Oprah Winfrey as the narrator, and a beefier supplemental section to account for footage that was trimmed in order to fit standard US broadcast times.

The Series

Life is the grand successor to the highly acclaimed Planet Earth series, and takes a similar approach to revealing some of the wonders of our natural world. Where Planet Earth was an expertly compressed look at our entire globe, Life does just what the title suggests and focuses on the rich variety of life forms which populate our world. Each of the ten episodes focuses on a particular group (reptiles, mammals, fish, etc.) and highlights some of the unique aspects of their adaptive habits. The emphasis, as usual for this sort of show, veers towards unusual and polemic traits or representative species and makes for rather arresting nature studies.

As with any BBC Earth series, the visuals are the main reason for watching Life. This is pure eye candy and the film crew demonstrates some of the most impressive and seemingly-impossible nature shots you will find. Some of the footage shows animal habits never before captured on film; although really, most people probably have never seen the majority of Life's content whether it has been captured before or not. From the simply awesome slow-motion chameleon shots in the opening episode, on through the exquisite underwater whale and otherworldly suspended butterfly shots, this is the way nature programs should be done. Story transitions and pacing are engaging and build a genuine narrative, instead of just being a collection of cool footage. It's unfortunate that shorter US broadcast times forced the content to be edited down from its British counterpart. The locations where commercial breaks occurred are frequent and the transitions abrupt which can be distracting, a contrast from the natural flow of other titles from BBC Earth.

Although previous titles have used a revolving cast of narrators, none have garnered as much heated backlash as the Discovery Channel's choice of Oprah Winfrey to narrate their version of Life. Contrary to what some might want you to believe, her contribution isn't a complete train wreck. But it is weak, especially when compared to the BBC version featuring David Attenborough. Life is compelling enough on its own that it doesn't require the commentary to make it work, but that doesn't mean that a weak contribution doesn't distract. Oprah sounds as is she only had a couple of days to spare and is looking over the script for the first time as she records her narration. Her delivery often feels labored and unnatural, and the script suffers from a distinct dumbing-down of content. And again, this becomes more noticeable since we have an alternate and better narration to judge it against. This one sounds as if it's catering more towards a junior high science class rather than curious, educated adults.

Video/Audio

Life comes to high definition with a very strong 1080i picture. It is every bit on par with Planet Earth and is a brilliant showcase for the stunning images you will find within. As with some of the sequences on earlier projects where harsh filming conditions resulted in a variance of picture quality, the episodes of Life aren't perfect, although, overall, they are a bit better and the consistency in images is very strong. The vast majority of the footage is nothing short of astounding and continues the tradition of being the best-looking nature footage you will find. Complaints are few and pretty forgivable considering the circumstances surrounding the filming.

The audio is a 5.1 DTS-HD High Resolution track, although it's under-utilized. The narration and most of the music occurs in the front channels, with the rears basically picking up ambient nature sounds (wind, lapping waves, animal calls, etc.) and little else. What's there is suitably strong, but audio has never been the primary calling card of BBC Earth titles.

Bonus Material

The supplemental content for Life is some of the best from BBC Earth thus far. At long last we have behind-the-scenes offerings that show how the film crew captured some of these amazing shots. "Life On Location" (HD, roughly 10 minutes each) is a ten-part — one for each main episode — look at the extraordinary lengths to which the crew went for their footage. This has been a much wished for feature with BBC Earth titles, and it does not disappoint here. Showing the use of some truly heroic (although some might say foolish) filming locations, this is a fascinating peek behind the curtain. The eleventh main episode included in the set puts some of this footage together.

The "Deleted Scenes" (HD, 18:05) basically collects together in one place all the footage that was trimmed from the original BBC episodes so that the show could fit on an American broadcast schedule. Although not as convenient a presentation as the BBC set, at least you're not really missing any footage. And finally, as if to offer an olive branch to us Yanks, there is a "Music Only" option for all the episodes. Yes, that's right, you can finally turn off Oprah. Seriously though, it really is a nice feature (regardless of narrator), making the series a fairly lavish living wallpaper.

Conclusion

The Americanized, Discovery Channel iteration of Life wouldn't seem so weak if it weren't so clearly the crippled version of the BBC series. Since both are available at the same time and at the same price, there isn't a compelling reason to pick up this version unless you're just a die-hard supporter of all things Oprah. Although she doesn't butcher the narration as much as some would like you to believe, she is still no David Attenborough. If you are even remotely interested in nature shows, Life is a don't-miss follow up to Planet Earth. Just don't settle for this version of it.

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