Sir David Attenborough is himself a force of nature. For decades, the producer and narrator has devoted his life to exploring the mysteries of the natural world, allowing viewers across the world a glimpse into the wonders of the planet. “Blue Planet” (2001) and “Planet Earth” (2007) are just two of Attenborough’s most famous narrated projects, and “Our Planet” (2019) continues this legacy. The Netflix Original, produced in collaboration with Silverback Films and the World Wildlife Fund, presents a stunning, horrific and honest look at the state of our planet in the face of ongoing human activity and offers hope through education.
“Our Planet” is comprised of eight episodes, with each title providing an overview of that episode’s focus; episode two is titled “Frozen Worlds,” while episode three is called “Jungles,” for example. Viewers of previous Attenborough documentaries will easily spot similarities to his past work, as each episode spends time following specific animals and groups of animals as they attempt to survive in the wild. However, from the beginning of episode one, it becomes clear that the series is more than another simple exploration of the natural world — this is a deep look at the irreversible ways humanity has altered the planet, usually for worse.
While not politically partisan in nature, the show does not shy away from its intense criticism on unchecked human expansion. The documentary focuses on incredible natural spectacles before making abundantly clear that humans threaten much of what has just been portrayed onscreen. Attenborough’s voice provides a somber message for those watching: “The stability that we and all life rely upon is being lost. What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth.”
The famed narrator is, of course, an excellent addition to the program. His years of experience in narration lend a sincere and deft voice to the documentary, which makes it easy to get lost in the drama unfolding on screen. He is a master, and the narration is close to flawless, a prime example of how to direct a viewer without dragging them along artificially.
To compliment the stellar narration, “Our Planet” is also a visual treat. When it was first announced in 2015, Netflix noted that the series would be shot in an Ultra HD 4K format, and, while this might seem like excessive jargon at first glance, the documentary’s visuals more than speak for themselves. From crashing waves which evaporate into flecks of sea foam to early morning mist drifting above a lush jungle, the visual appeal is something which must be experienced to be understood. Every detail comes to life, which gives the film’s message an emotional reach that it would otherwise lack. Hearing about starving animals is one thing, but when a baby flamingo chick falls behind its group, legs encrusted in solidified salt as it utters an anxious chirp and trips over itself, the series connects with viewers on a deep and visceral level. Attenborough’s voice does not always need to remind those watching that humans are to blame for the tragedy of the wild’s deterioration, because the cinematography can help do it for him.
Speaking of cinematography, it’s clear that this is a high-budget production. The sweeping aerial shots, flawless transitions and intimate camera angles truly invite the viewer into each scene. Some of the shots become repetitive towards the latter episodes, but the shift between different ecosystems counteracts this problem, introducing different environments that in turn lead to different filming strategies. The music is yet another area of success for “Our Planet,” as it fades into the background without ever leaving the ear. Keening violin solos and delicate wind ensembles punctuate already emotional moments, while soaring crescendos and tempo changes help seamlessly transition between often vastly different scenes. Everything works together, reflecting the film’s message that both the planet and humanity’s survivals are forever interwoven.
The documentary ends its final episode with a look at Chernobyl, highlighting the miraculous ability of the natural world to recover — in the absence of humans, at least. The series tells viewers that, against all odds, nature flourished at the site of a terrible disaster, reclaiming land previously thought lost for millennia. Of course, this begs the question: Can humans and nature truly co-exist, or does the destruction of one guarantee the other’s survival? Only time, the series suggests, can answer that.
As with most of Attenborough’s works, “Our Planet” is a masterpiece. It will entice both die-hard documentary enthusiasts and indifferent Netflix browsers alike, and the message behind this series is even more powerful in light of everything the documentary does right. With our impact on the planet only slated to increase in the near future, the series offers a beacon of hope to those frustrated by a lack of meaningful change: Wild places still exist on Earth, and it’s not yet too late to save them.