I could never be skeptical of anything done by BBC Earth–every project they touch turns to gold–so going into Planet Earth II I was completely confident it would be beautiful, touching, and poignant. But even then I still wondered whether it could live up to the almost impossible expectations I had for it, because the original Planet Earth series from ten years ago remains one of the greatest triumphs not just of nature documentaries, but of any television series ever produced.
Could they recreate the magic of the original? Would the images and stories live up to those of its predecessor, the very standard bearer of the genre? Was I going to find myself getting emotional over the normal, everyday actions of animals?
Yes. Yes. And yes–often.
Actually, I didn’t have to wait for a tender moment between mom and pup. I got teary eyed during the introduction from narrator Sir David Attenborough. That’s right, no American voice to lead the way for us on this side of the Atlantic this time. Woohoo!
The feel of Planet Earth II is very much like the original, with stunning, almost unbelievable images set to evocative music. We see the life or death struggles of animals fighting to eat, mate, and survive at the foreground of each episode. But don’t worry, because their environments getting plenty of attention too. For example the second episode, “Mountains,” is full of beautiful overhead shots, like the kind that were so prevalent in the first series. And in the third of six installments, “Jungles,” merely traveling up along one giant tree feels like experiencing our planet’s greatest triumph.
In some ways this also feels like a follow-up to the BBC Earth series Life, which was done after Planet Earth. That differentiated itself by giving far more intimate looks at the animals with less of a focus on the environment. But Planet Earth II manages to do both, and that’s due to huge advancements in camera technology as well as drone capabilities.
Besides going from 2k to 4k, they were able to capture genuinely hard-to-believe up-close footage of animals thanks to “the latest camera-stabilization techniques,” which made it easier to stay with an animal–either by a cameraman or drone–from up close. Not having to use a tripod means better, less restricted footage. As do high quality camera traps that give never-before-seen looks at animals in the remotest, hardest to reach places. All of these technological advancements make a noticeable difference.
If you’re a BBC Earth nut like I am, you’ve seen a Komodo dragon before, but here you feel like you’re actually next to one, staring eye to eye.
In addition, they say a “new generation of low-light cameras” let them “capture the drama that takes place in the darkest night and deepest jungles.” They aren’t kidding either, because the night jungle floor suddenly looks like Pandora from Avatar, with glowing creatures and fungi that don’t look of this planet.
The whole series was filmed over 5.7 years, “in 40 different countries on 117 filming trips and a total of 2089 shooting days,” and all of that access and time makes for arguably the greatest looking nature documentary series ever made. Of course, that was true of Planet Earth ten years ago, but that wasn’t the only reason it was so special, and it’s not why this time either.
The stories they tell about the fight and celebration of life on earth is what gives it the heart that makes it more than just pretty images.
When they open up on a lonely sloth (which sounds way more noble when Attenborough pronounces the word like it rhymes with “growth” instead of “goth), and he starts moving to find the call of a female sloth only to fail, it moved me. It can be easy to personify these animals, but so what? They’re alive, they’re beautiful, and they face many of the same struggles we do. They seek food, shelter, protection, companionship, and even fun, like grizzly bears who need a way to scratch their backs, so they do a sort of dances with their backs against trees. (The music played during that sequence was so perfect it made me laugh.)
A spider monkey father rescuing his littlest one from disaster, only for her to then latch on and give him a big hug, is the best argument I’ve ever seen for environmental protectionism. So are the young Nubian ibexes fleeing a hungry fox along the seemingly-impossible-to-traverse vertical plateaus of their home, as was the mother and cub snow leopards walking a fine line between conflicting natural instincts. These aren’t just creatures, they are beings, majestic and inspiring.
But while the specter of ecological disaster obviously hangs over Planet Earth II (and all of us), there are few explicit calls to action. The stated warnings are few and far between, which is more than enough, because the idea that all of this could be lost–that something as incredible as a jaguar eating a crocodile, or an act as inspiring as a little glass frog protecting his unhatched tadpoles from wasps, or a scene as beautiful as a penguin family reuniting amid millions of other penguins–says more than words ever could.
Planet Earth II had access to giant leaps in camera and drone technology, and it used them to monumental success. The series feels different enough from the original to not just be a continuation, but something that stands on its own. But it manages to keep the core of what makes the franchise what it is, not just images that awe us with their grandeur or exclusivity, but by telling the stories of our home that remind us why it’s worth loving and caring for. For reasons that have nothing and everything to do with us.
Planet Earth II premieres in the U.S. this Saturday, February 18, on BBC America, AMC, and the Sundance Channel at 9 pm Eastern.
What are you most looking forward to with Planet Earth II? Soar into our comments section below and let us know.
Images: BBC America