Our Planet Review

As Netflix continues to grow to a behemoth-like size, the presumption is that they have everything that regular TV and theatrical films can offer to audiences, if not more. They’ve got big-budget fare from A-list filmmakers, Oscar-winning foreign films, award-winning sitcoms, crime dramas, HBO-style mature thrillers, children’s programming, talk shows, and more. Over the span of just a few years, Netflix has engulfed much of scripted and unscripted programming and films, investing billions in making new content that can easily get forgotten simply because there’s so much of it.

Keeping all that in mind, one of their latest releases, Our Planet, is essentially the first of its kind at the streaming service.

The First of Its Kind

Our Planet manages to be a unique step forward for Netflix, while not being that unique among the offerings on modern TV. For all the various types of shows and films that the streaming giant makes, they’ve never made a straight-up nature documentary, aside from a couple of entries focused on specific animals. For their first major series, they’ve gone big, with an eight-episode series starting April 5 from the producing team behind the remarkably beautiful Planet Earth series. That documentary, of course, was narrated and guided from a storytelling standpoint by Sir David Attenborough, whose dulcet tones are what set the stage for documentaries from Our Planet to Life to The Hunt.

Until now, these documentaries were entirely a product of the BBC Natural History Unit, the documentary team that has spearheaded some of the most jaw-dropping HD images and sequences in the last decade. While you can find most of those series streaming on Netflix, the streamer didn’t have any of their own; none of those single-focused nature docs come close to the BBC blue-chip documentaries that have become a staple of unscripted programming over the last decade, as well as a staple of any electronics store worth its salt, showcasing crisp HD imagery.

Netflix’s past documentary output has been as impressive as the scripted programming it releases, though many of its unscripted shows have capitalized on trends like true crime, with Making a Murder, as well as travel documentaries in the same vein as the shows made by the late Anthony Bourdain. And other recent shows like Wild Wild Country have set the Internet ablaze, but also swerve into more modern documentary styles that are about building mysteries to solve as much as they are about detailing true stories. Nature documentaries like Our Planet are, in their own way, quite suspenseful if a lot more bite-sized. The new show is broken up over its eight installments to focus on different ecosystems on the planet and how the animals within those ecosystems survive and cope in a changing environment, from the seas to deserts to everywhere in between.

Taking a Different Direction

Our Planet is much in line with the overarching themes and expansive storytelling of Planet Earth and its sequel from 2017. As in that documentary, and many of the high-level documentaries Attenborough has narrated, each episode focuses on a different aspect of the world, jumping from coastal seas to deserts to jungles within each hour. But what’s most vital about this documentary, and a challenging needle to thread, is what causes the environments these animals live in to change: man-made climate change. Climate change is a specter in many of the past Attenborough-narrated documentaries, but this time around, the urgent need for mankind to save the planet is no longer a background element, but heavily foregrounded.

Sometimes, climate change comes up in these kinds of documentaries because a species is on the brink of extinction, or their home is in need of revival or repair lest it vanish. But often, as important as saving the planet is, that topic is almost snuck in as a final thought, or as the central focus of the last episode of past BBC Natural History Unit documentaries. (That latter choice is intriguing and a little depressing because viewership numbers suggest that most audiences check in for the first episode of a series, instead of sticking around until the very end.)

But then, you have Our Planet. The title suggests a level of ownership that could lead to a dry, dull, if necessary lecture. That, of course, is where the challenge of talking about climate change  lies: how do you make it remotely entertaining, as opposed to a hectoring or nagging plea? Attenborough and the directing/producing team have arguably never stepped wrong before; with Our Planet, they’ve zigged instead of zagged.

Each episode begins from the surface of the Moon, as Attenborough references the upcoming 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk. By doing so, and by letting the show begin with us staring at, essentially, ourselves, Our Planet shifts the tone. Here is an example of mankind’s ingenuity and daring: walking on the moon. The rest of the documentary is earthbound, but with the subtext that we can again repeat that ingenuity and daring, just at home. In the end, Our Planet manages to both emphasize the severity of the problem, and allow for glimmers of hope based on pre-existing examples of people coming together to actually do something to save the planet.

The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

The one element of Our Planet that’s recognizable from many other recent nature documentaries is the often-jaw-droppingly clear and bright photography, this time in 4K. The cinematographic aspects you have come to expect from Planet Earth and the like are here, too, from eerie and thrilling time-lapse photography to extreme close-ups on the tiniest of creatures. And as ever, it’s pretty surprising how the documentary is able to change its tone essentially on a dime, changing from a witty and colorful depiction of strange bird-mating rituals, enhanced by their unique plumage, to a truly heartbreaking and gutting scene of seals attempting to jump off a cliff to get to the waters below.

That latter element is where Our Planet also feels different — much more so than in recent documentaries, Attenborough’s narration and the stories being told are directly about the impact of climate change. In that sequence about seals (which is genuinely upsetting, only in part because of the choice to depict the free-falling seals in what appears to be slow motion), we’re watching animal behavior based on climate change. The seal population is so high but their environment on the South Pole is melting so the water they’re meant to swim in is harder to access.

If Our Planet was as depressing as this sequence, it’d be awfully hard to recommend even considering the sharp 4K HD photography. The surprise of the documentary is that when climate change and mankind’s role in it is brought up, it’s not consistently negative. With each episode made up of vignettes, some of them wind up with a happier-than-expected conclusion. The episode focusing on coastal seas, at one point, takes a look at a sanctuary of sorts for sharks, wherein over the last decade, the amount of sharks has increased by 25 times. Why? Because the waters in question became protected due to people realizing the necessity of letting these creatures flourish.

There are aspects like this throughout Our Planet, which serve as a necessary and relieving signpost. More than likely, the majority of people watching this documentary (or any of the others Attenborough’s been involved in) already have a basic understanding of the disastrous impacts of climate change. But seeing evidence that there are ways to help reverse it, even slightly, is weirdly quite exciting. As beautiful as nature can be, if each of these documentaries simply ends with a doom-and-gloom reminder of how quickly things can turn sour, it’s almost worth wondering why anyone would want to watch the last episode.

It’s hard to know if Our Planet will be a fluke for Netflix. The BBC Natural History Unit is hard at work on a number of other documentaries, including more sequels of sorts to past documentaries like Frozen Planet and Planet Earth. Such globe-trotting documentaries take time to develop, with those sequels set to be released a few years from now when the world climate will likely look different, and possibly even more dire. For now, though, Our Planet is a necessary step in the evolution both of Netflix’s original content and in nature documentaries of the modern era. It’s as gorgeous as past examples, but balancing the urgency of climate change with the distinct and satisfying possibility that man-made solutions can be effective in the short- and long-term. And for Netflix, Our Planet is just more proof that the streaming service can do what regular networks do, just as well if not better.

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