Planet Earth: The Blockbuster

/ by Laura McNeil /

Can the power of the moving image save the environment?

A herd of African elephants rely on the memories of the older matriarchs to lead them on the long and dusty journey across Botswana, back to traditional waterholes. Photo © Ben Osborne, from Planet Earth by Alastair Fothergill (University of California Press and BBC Worldwide Americas)

We’re all familiar with that oft-heard admonishment favored by parents on bright (and sometimes dim) days to turn off the TV and go outside. Take a walk, get some fresh air!

This is surely sound advice. Communing with nature is a healthy ritual that revives our fundamental connection to the world around us. But this is a complex relationship too, characterized by our attempts to establish dominion over the Earth, to manipulate it, and put it to our use. And we’ve been very successful. As more of us move into the city—in America that rate is about 1.4 percent a year—our walks are inevitably on concrete, our fresh air often tinted with the flavors of the city, and our green space sequestered, enduring in backyard plots and on balconies. We have tamed the wild. Ours is not so much the Great Outdoors as the Not So Bad. More and more it would seem that our best way of experiencing nature at the grand scale is by going back inside and turning on the TV.

The recently aired BBC/Discovery production Planet Earth unfolds to a very grand scale indeed. A sweeping spectacle, covering all manner of life and natural phenomena in an 11-episode series, Planet Earth is every bit the modern epic. “This is your world,” the introductory credits illume. “Prepare to see it as never before.” This advice, tantalizingly anticipatory as it is, never seems uncalled for. The cinematography and soundtrack, a feast of color, light, and sound, borrow shamelessly from the Hollywood formula. Cinematic devices like slow motion and time lapse pair with dramatic, suspense-filled, and character-driven narratives to create the scope and pace of the silver screen.

Our cultural moment—one of ever-increasing awareness about the environment, the threat of climate change, and the importance of biodiversity and conservation—is information rich. These issues have reached us intellectually (thank you, Al Gore), and people are consequently aware of their importance; they comprehend them. The issues haven’t, however, reached us emotionally. Planet Earth does. This is our world, as we’ve never felt it before.

As the opening credits of each episode remind us, Planet Earth was five years in the making and involved 2,000 days of shooting, in 204 locations. The evident commitment to the venture is admirable, and the technology behind it has been used to spectacular effect. All of the footage was shot with new high-definition video technology and attendant state-of-the-art instrumentation, resulting in a wealth of “firsts” for the series. Incredibly powerful lenses allow for intimate and crystalline vistas, some never-before filmed. Time-lapse photography reveals rhythms and patterns otherwise undetectable, tailoring nature’s ceaseless story to enlightening narrative arcs. Images from space not only bring an arresting sense of scale to the planet’s colossal distinguishing features, from the Andes to the Amazon, but continually reinforce the whole as we witness the wonder of its parts.

The result is that we are consumed by the spectacle while simultaneously marveling at the fact that we’re actually able to witness it. A pride of lions mounts a rare and desperate midnight attack on an African elephant; thousands of bats emerge from their cave, forming a giant cylindrical swarm that takes on the surreal appearance of an inverted milky way. These images are magical. The music, a tide of violins, trumpets and bassoons, artfully scores every bit of latent emotional weight in each of them, and we are completely transported.

Throughout history there have been moments that have fundamentally altered our relationship with the natural world, tipping the balance of power in our direction. Our mastery of its elements to create the atom bomb, our journey away from it to land on the moon, our discovery of the double helix, its very architecture. All of these events demonstrated our power to manipulate nature, for both the good and the bad—to be both destroyer and creator of worlds. They were pivotal by virtue of the fact that they were undeniable. Consequently, they informed our thinking, and our perspective, on the natural world.

To transform our relationship once again, this moment of environmental crisis must be undeniable to us. We need to feel it. As with the plight of Ethiopia during the 1984 famine and with AIDS in the early 90s, rational arguments must be supplemented with emotional ones. We saw images of African babies with distended bellies and listened to the musicians who formed Live Aid, and we were changed. We heard ardent testimony via Angels in America, Magic Johnson, and Rent, and we were changed. An accumulation of spectacle brought an emotional dimension to issues that, for many, were still very abstract. Our perspective changed because we finally took it personally.

The moving image has a remarkable capacity to imbue us with feeling, to embody an experience that allows us to live and breathe in another place and time. When it’s done well, it is arguably the most powerful emotional tool in our cultural lexicon.

Seeing the surprising grace with which a polar bear swims through the icy ocean in search of food, we learn that it was once very rare to see these animals in the water at all. They didn’t have to swim because they could prey on seals from the edge of the ice. But that edge has now receded due to the warming climate, so they must swim. After the bear has traveled countless miles in search of food, a heart-wrenching scene of his exhausted and ultimately vain attempt to kill and eat a walrus plays out before us. His first meal in months, and his last shot at surviving and returning home with food for his mate and their cubs, gone. Injured and sapped of all strength, he digs a shallow bed and lies down to die.

It’s perhaps ironic that our scientific and technological prowess, that which we have so often wielded to subdue nature, is what now allows us to see our planet in ways that celebrate—even enhance—its beauty and its worth. Seeing the natural world as a technicolor spectacle overwhelms us. There can be no indifference to life when life looks like this. Indeed, in our filmic age, a time of YouTube and 2.5 televisions per every American household, the potential for the moving image to change our perspective has never been so strong. Here is how we may finally understand, in our hearts and not our heads, the fragility and the majesty of our pale blue dot.

The moment is ripe to yet again transform our relationship with the natural world, in another direction. So sit back down on your couch and enjoy some nature.

Originally published May 17, 2007

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