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Friday, Jan. 18, 2008
Nature documentary ignores the grim to paint pretty picture
The nature documentary has long been a staple of the small screen, whether its NHK or the BBC, but in recent years more and more have been showing up in the cinemas.
Massive image size may be one attraction, but most recent hits have also had a very clever angle: "Le peuple migrateur" focused strictly on bird migration routes across the planet; "La marche de l'empereur" found an emotional connection, stories of love and family, among Emperor penguins in the remotest regions of Antarctica.
The latest addition to the big-screen genre is simply titled "Earth," a feature film edited down from the BBC TV series "Planet Earth" by British directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. This film comes with a lot of hype: more than 4,500 days of shooting in 200 locations on super-slow-motion cameras that record 2,000 frames per second, and a budget in the $40 million range, unheard of for documentaries.
The result is a lavish, lush film with spectacular imagery that time after time makes you wonder: How on earth (ahem) did they manage to get that shot? What's less clear, though, is the film's brief. It comes out of the box stating, in voiceover by Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek"), "All life here is ultimately powered by the energy of the sun. This drives migration from north to south." But the migration theme is not pursued with the rigor of "Le peuple migrateur." Instead, "Earth" comes off as a compendium of all creatures cute and carnivorous.
Whether it's polar bear cubs coasting down an icy slope or ducklings jumping gracelessly from their perch in a tree, the filmmakers certainly know how to elicit a collective gasp of "kawaii (cute)" from an audience. But the flip side of this is a fascination with nature's predators, things such as wolves, cheetahs and great white sharks. One thing they are careful to do is keep the two separate: when white wolves chase a young caribou buck, we see the entire chase till the end, when the camera suddenly cuts away, our admiration for the predator unsullied by the reality of the killing. It's a furthering of the philosophy that we should love all nature, one-sidedly, without considering its cruelty. It made me recall the words of director Werner Herzog in his film "Grizzly Man," a documentary about a naturalist killed by the "cute" grizzly bears he followed. "The common denominator of the universe," stated Herzog, "is chaos, hostility, murder." That's a bit stark, but it's certainly an alternative to the beauty and idealized images of "Earth."
"Earth" moves from the North Pole to the Amazon, then onto the Kalahari, Siberian tundra and some really bizarre-looking birds in the tropical rain forests of Papua New Guinea.
The most incredible images are time-lapse, a ravishing sequence of sakura (cherry trees) budding and blossoming in a wave of color, or stunning shots of ice floes shifting and breaking up. Of course such imagery brings to mind the films that pioneered this magnificent slow-mo style, 1982's "Koyaanisqatsi" and '92's "Baraka," films with far more depth and provocative juxtaposition of images. Where "Baraka" was wordless, "Earth" employs the overly familiar voice-of-god narration style, which is often superfluous. Do we really need the plummy tones of Stewart telling us, "This is the cycle, sunlight and water, bringing life to every corner of the Earth." As if residents of this planet couldn't surmise that? Furthermore, "Baraka" and its brothers realized that this planet is occupied by humans, too, and recorded the intersections between man, animal and the planet. "Earth" treats humans as nonexistent, except for a last-minute plea where they show a drowning polar bear cub and turn the focus onto global warming caused by humans.
Stewart says, "It's not too late to make a difference. Find out what you can do." Perhaps I was having a bad day, but sitting in a cinema that had the air conditioning turned up to "11," I really didn't buy it.
After taking us to the Amazon, without noting the rate at which it's disappearing, and mentioning expanding deserts and melting glaciers, with no reasons given, this last-reel "message" seemed more like a need for an ending than any real desire to rouse us to action, a la Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."