REVIEW: Our Planet. Beautiful and Brutal, Netflix Reveals a Changing World

★★★★☆

Walruses heave themselves up cliffs in Russia to an uncertain fate. Huge 75 million tonnes chunks of ice crash into the Antarctic ocean and an almost magically elusive Siberian Tiger strolls across a mountain ridge in the setting sun. 

The scenes from Netflix’s first foray into Natural History programming are breathtaking, beautiful and entirely brutal. The exquisite high definition detail provides a strange, other-worldly clarity to the programme. Witnessing the breath-taking beauty of whole ecosystems in the throes of transformation is almost surreal and it provides an extraordinary backdrop against which the daily trials of life for the featured wild animals as their struggles unfold. Netflix’s first natural history programme, Our Planet, brings to its platform some of the thrills and perils facing the natural world. It sets out a new tone to natural history programming, filled with urgency and a clear admission of the damage humans have done to the natural world.  

  • four years to shoot
  • 2,000 hours of dives
  • 400,000 hours of camera trap footage
  • filmed in 60 countries

It’s a significant shift in tone from our existing natural history programming. The BBC’s Natural History, though responsible for brilliant and dedicated natural history programming has, for too long, worried itself about giving a balanced view in the climate change debate. Just taking a look at it’s evolving editorial policy on the subject gives an idea of how enmeshed the organisation became in representing a balanced view:

Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often. The climate science community is clear that humans have changed the climate, but specifically how is more difficult to evidence. For instance, there is very high confidence that there will be more extreme events – floods, droughts, heatwaves etc. – but attributing an individual event, such as the UK’s winter floods in 2013/2014, to climate change is much less certain.

And in The Guardian Martin Hughes-Games suggests that, whilst it’s been wonderful watching the BBC’s Planet Earth II the programme is ‘ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.’ The reason for this is because, taking into account the BBC’s editorial policy, it has avoid messy politicised topics like climate change; it has presented the natural world in all its beauty, unspoilt and undisturbed, lulling audiences into a false sense of security and fostering the perception of vast landscapes full of wild animals. 

SILVERBACK/NETFLIX

Has Netflix addressed the issue of climate change?

Yes. For a start they lured David Attenborough, and the producing team behind Planet Earth, away from the BBC to the eight-part series, with a multi-million dollar budget and filmed by more than 600 crew members over four years and across 50 countries. And they’ve used a staggering array of state-of-the-art tech, from vehicle mounted cameras and 4k drones, to capture the hidden lives of our remaining wildlife and wild spaces. 

And it’s spectacular. Aerial shots soar over pods of dolphins, a thousand strong, leaping out of the seas as they flee their predators, False Killer Whales, in quick pursuit a short distance behind them. The urgency and the panic is tangible; it crackles in the air and the ocean surface literally fizzes. 

We follow some exceptionally rare desert elephants seeking life-saving sustenance in a seemingly dead world we and learn that the necessary knowledge for this, passed down from generation to generation, now only resides in 20 living elephant matriarchs. If, or should we say when, those elephants are lost then the species here may find it impossible to survive in this harshest of environments. 

We’re taken deep underground into the heart of an ant’s nest in which we see a fattening caterpillar produce just the right levels of the right scent concocted to lure the surrounding ants into attending to its every need. The cuckoo-like caterpillar lures them into… well you’d have to watch to find out.

And as you are watching you can’t help but marvel at the exquisite detail. The definition seems surreal. Clearly huge advancements in technology are beginning to make a spectacular difference. The high definition camera work is astonishing and it’s impossible to watch without marvelling at the feats of display, endurance and competitiveness as these animals go about the challenges, struggles and dramas of their daily lives.

SILVERBACK/NETFLIX

There is little doubt that Netflix has set a new standard for natural history programming. It’s brought the intricacy and beauty of nature onto it’s platform along with an urgent message about the damage we are doing to the natural world. 

It has also made a huge departure from the BBC’s traditional format of adopting a neutral stance with regards to the climate change debate. This approach is must undoubtedly by relegated to the archives. It’s almost impossible to think of the BBC producing another landmark series about the natural world without adopting a similar stance. 

There is just one problem…

The missing piece of the puzzle

As Attenborough reminds us of the devastation that humans have inflicted around the world we only see on screen the beauty of nature. In every episode there is an urgent reminder about the ways in which we humans are upsetting the natural balance of things. 

Yet, it doesn’t feel like we’re quite getting the full picture. We hear warnings of the destruction that we, as a species are causing, but we only see examples of nature at it’s finest. We are even visually guided around the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster to provide an example of what nature can do when humans are absent.  

SILVERBACK/NETFLIX

And that’s when it becomes clear. Humans are entirely absent from this programme. It creates a cognitive dissonance. I know we’re responsible for environmental damage because Attenborough’s grave and trusted voice is enough to tell me so, but I can’t help but think what a beautiful, varied and full-of-life planet we live on because of the extraordinary wild creatures and spaces on display.

Netflix has changed the way natural history programmes are produced and for that they deserve a huge amount of credit. However in doing so they have drawn our attention to the bad guys in the movie, us! And we’re nowhere to be seen. The programme traversed the world, all continents and over 60 countries and yet, despite the menacing presence of humans on the planet, not a single human appears in the programmes (except in the ‘the-making-of’). I get it, destruction of the natural world isn’t as pretty. But still it seems odd. It’s a bit like having a horror/slasher movie made with no murders and no horror in it. 

It’s beautiful, brutal and breath-taking. But it’s also possible that audiences around the world won’t take notice and fight for the natural world until natural history producers are honest about our role in it’s destruction. The Annihilation of the Amazon, for example, might not make for an aesthetically pleasing piece of the puzzle but until we show the beauty and the destruction side by side there’s a risk that people might not care enough to make a difference.

Watch Our Planet on Netflix