BBC’s Life on Blu-ray
Life is a sprawling, ten episode nature documentary, first aired on on BBC One and BBC HD in late 2009. Commissioned by Peter Fincham just weeks after he became the Network Controller of BBC One, it was a bold move for someone who just became the boss. The series was shot entirely in high-definition. It took three years of filming, on seven continents. Seventy camera crews filmed over three thousand shooting days, documenting two hundred different species. If there ever was an epic wildlife documentary, this is it.
The first episode of Life is a general introduction to the series. The next nine episodes focus on one specific subject. In order, Reptiles and Amphibians, Mammals, Fish, Birds, Insects, Hunters and Hunted, Creatures of the Deep, Plants, and finally Primates. When aired in Canada and the United Kingdom, each episode ran fifty minutes, followed by a ten minute ‘making of’ featurette, rounding out the presentation to an hour. Originally, the script was written and narrated by David Attenborough. However, for its broadcast in the US, Oprah narrated from a different script that was tailored to American audiences. Each episode was also edited to make time for commercial breaks. The ‘making of’ portions were scrapped entirely.
Life was originally presented as part of BBC’s Darwin Season, focusing on extreme behaviors and strategies living things have adopted in order to survive–something Darwin called “the struggle for existence”. If these observed behaviors are considered remarkable, the fact BBC’s crews were able to capture it on camera is a miracle. Life, in all its wonder, truly is capture on screen. And in high definition, it’s breathtaking.
Of course, some segments are more compelling than others. Highlights for this viewer included Reptiles and Amphibians, Insects, Creatures of the Deep, and Plants. Surprisingly, I found the Primates and Birds sections to be a bit uninspired in their narration. Whether the blame can be placed securely at the feet of Oprah, or the American version of the script, I don’t know. I haven’t heard the original with Attenborough. I did very much enjoy his somewhat clinical relationship to Planet Earth. Feeling one or two of the segments dragged in its traditional story telling obligations, should not imply that the visual images never cease to amaze. The visuals are a feast for your eyes, and I can honestly say, I never tired of looking at the screen.
If you are one who caught this series when aired on Discovery in the US, I can’t recommend the bonus features made available on the Blu-ray Collector’s Set enough. Besides a collection of fascinating deleted scenes, every single ‘making of’ featurette is included. Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with these ten minute segments. On one hand, I’m grateful I had so many questions answered. Through my first viewing of Life, with my jaw dropped, I constantly wondered how such magnificent shots were filmed. How to a camera crew get so close to a herd of twelve Komodo dragons taking down a full size buffalo? How did they follow the journey of a tree frog smaller than the size of my finger nail, up the length of a one hundred foot tree? These segments answer these questions.
However, there is a magical quality of the main segments of Life. You truly feel like you’re an omniscient observer, making an unobtrusive visit to a world, unobserved by the animals being filmed. Somewhere, you know this isn’t true, and it’s a testament to the quality of the documentary that this atmosphere is preserved. So it’s a bit like revealing the man behind the curtain when you see the cameramen and women so close to the action, occasionally even interacting with the animals (for safety precautions), or using trick photography to emphasize certain points (as far as I know this was exclusively used in the Plants segment in order to capture things on camera that are otherwise impossible to film).
Overall, Life is a bit sanitized. Rarely will you see an animal be killed, or eaten (except for in the deleted scenes). At first, the absence of this ubiquitous part of natural life seemed like a disservice to an otherwise exceptional documentary series, though, I was missing the point. Life is a celebration of, well, life, in all its glory. There’s nothing missing in Life, it’s a complete, and completely mesmerizing series that explores worlds usually unavailable to most in such beauty, it’s sometimes overwhelming.
Warner Brothers provided BFR with a review copy of Life