What is life? At its most basic level, a technical definition could be that it is the state of being alive at a cellular level or greater. And yet, we live on a world teeming with life in such abundance and diversity of form that it is so much more than that. Ultimately, I think that is what the most recent production from the BBC's Natural History Unit is about.
Life was four years in the making and comes from the producers of Planet Earth and The Blue Planet. It takes us on another amazing journey around the world, capturing on film the dazzling diversity of life Earth is blessed to have. As with their previous productions, these filmmakers have provided us with the shock and awe of the natural world and show us things we may never see otherwise.
With some shots in real time and others slow motion, we get to see creatures, alone and in groups, doing what they do best — surviving and perpetuating their species. From the tale of the gobie fish in Hawaii climbing waterfalls to spawn in perfect pools at the top of rocky cliffs to flying fish to the cycle of hunter and hunted played out in countless environments each day, we are presented with crystal clear imagery that mesmerizes with almost every frame.
Originally broadcast in England at the end of 2009 (this version is the one that aired in the US in 2010), the 10 episodes of Life each focus on a unique aspect of living organisms on Earth.
The series starts with the "Challenges of Life" where the filmmakers present examples of how plants, animals, and insects manage to find enough food to eat and find ways to reproduce to ensure the continuation of their kind. Amazing footage of what a small mother strawberry poison dart frog does to keep her tadpoles safe in the rainforest canopy and the Pacific giant octopus sacrificing herself so that her children may survive show the lengths to which some creatures will go to protect and care for their young.
Life then walks through an episode for each major group of creatures on the planet and titles the episode to note their focus — "Reptiles and Amphibians," "Mammals," "Fish," "Birds," and "Insects." Each episode shows the cycles inherent in all living things — from the groupers spreading fertilized eggs in clouds beneath the waves that get eaten by predators to the damselfly's chance to lay eggs interrupted by a leaping frog. Opportunities abound for all creatures in the food chain to do their part to survive.
The series then shifts to "Creatures of the Deep," where photographers manage to show a seal carcass beneath the Antarctic ice providing food for urchins, sea stars, and nemertean worms, proving that creatures big and small will find ways to eat and reproduce even in the harshest conditions. The amazing footage of hundreds of thousands of spider crabs molting in the shallows off South Australia is amazingly bizarre and completely memorable.
In "Plants" we see the other side of the equation, from the forest floor to the canopy, the ocean floor to the desert — flora has also found ways to adapt and thrive in inhospitable places. The exposed roots of the epiphytes in the rain forest canopy trapping water and leaves for nutrients provide a stark contrast to the bristlecone pine trees that can live up to 5,000 years with a six-week growing season and at an altitude above 9,800 feet.
Lastly, the series focuses on the "Primates" — our distant cousins on the evolutionary chart. These intelligent, social creatures — from baboons and macaques using troop dynamics and bloodlines to determine the outcome of disputes to the white-faced capuchins using rocks to break open clams for dinner. It's impossible not to see similarities to the human condition.
Though we weren't able to catch each episode as it aired in the Discovery Channel earlier this year, we were excited to see the series become available on DVD recently. It's another amazing achievement for the BBC Natural History Unit and their dedicated, amazing photography teams scattered around the globe.
Each episode on the DVD is accompanied by a "Life on Location" special feature, which documents some of the challenges the film crews faced while trying to get footage for the production. Though short, each provides a glimpse into the commitment necessary to become a world-class nature photographer.
My one complaint with the series is that they chose Oprah Winfrey to do the narration for the American version. Though Oprah is a force to be reckoned with in her own right and the scripts were well written, her voice has an interesting tendency to put me to sleep. The visuals Are stunning and I wanted to hear the stories, but found her narration monotone enough to make it difficult to watch.
And as if they wanted to rub in how boring Oprah's narration is, they had David Attenborough, who narrates the British version, do the extras for each episode. Though nearing retirement, Attenborough's voice seemed infused with energy and life compared to listening to Oprah.
I was tempted to use the "Music Only" viewing option, but managed to get through Oprah's droning and enjoy the entire series. Hopefully they will find better narrators in the future. Jim Carrey would be a good choice (he recently narrated Under the Sea for IMAX) and James Earl Jones would also be great.
Don't let Oprah stop you from enjoying Life on DVD. It's another amazing documentary series from the BBC that you don't want to miss. Hopefully they'll have a better narrator for the upcoming Frozen Planet series which is scheduled to air in 2012 on the Discovery Channel!