Even if you’re not one of those people who sits around watching Discovery HD (mostly because it’s still the best way to use your HD cable subscription), there’s no denying that there’s something wondrous about seeing the wild splendor of our home planet. And no one seems to capture it with the grace and intimacy of the BBC. Their work on Planet Earth and The Blue Planet (among others) has changed forever the scope by which we view our own world, and in turn brought us closer to the world around us. But what happens when they turn that lens inward, focusing on humanity’s journey through this wild world? We get Human Planet, their most ambitious series to date.
Narrated by the soothing, sage-like voice of John Hurt, Human Planet is an 8-episode series centered upon man’s interaction with nature; all the beauty and all the danger. It’s a high definition portrait of the human condition. It’s not an all-encompassing, encyclopedic series by any means, but a string of vignette-style stories that work as literal and metaphoric examples of humanity’s great struggles with nature. In eight hour-long episodes, the BBC crew traverses seemingly every inch of the Earth, creating a beautiful time capsule of life as it is today. A truly educational experience, Human Planet is one of those great tales of human survival told through the eyes of its people, one of those great documentary projects that feels part high drama, part engrossing curriculum. Each of its eight parts, as outlined below, is unique and increasingly intense.
Oceans: Into the Blue
The first episode deals with humanity’s relationship with the sea. From those who live completely on the water to those who brave its most dangerous depths to earn dollars per day to support their families. Since the dawn of human exploration, we’ve been beholden to the seas in order to get around, but never would you expect that it is still such a life or death place for so many people.
Deserts: Life in the Furnace
Personally, I can’t imagine the real desert. The kind that exist in a mythical other planet known as Africa, where one could walk for days and weeks without finding water or civilization. But through the camera lens of the BBC, the deserts of Earth have spilled into my living room. After watching this episode, you’ll think twice before taking for granted the fact that you can go to the store and buy a bottle of water whenever you want.
Arctic: Life in the Deep Freeze
As a person of the snow (I grew up in Cleveland), I’ve long thought that I was tough. Trips to Sundance in January with friends from Los Angeles and Texas have led me to believe that I’m some sort of Himalayan storm trooper. But my exploits are nothing compared to what the Inuit people of the north endure almost year-round. These people hunt Narwhal to survive. I’ve never even seen a Narwhal. Well, I have now thanks to this series. But it still doesn’t feel like enough.
Jungles: People of the Trees
Remember the part of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Shia LaBeouf swung through the jungle with a group of monkeys? Real life is nothing like that. However, the jungles episode of Human Planet provides some of the most spectacular colors captured in this world or any other. The depiction of tribal gatherings in New Guinea is breathtaking, easily some of the most impressive visuals ever seen capture in any nature documentary I’ve seen.
Mountains: Life in Thin Air
Are you beginning to spot a trend here? Life is hard in much of the world. As a member of western civilization, the first world, the most rugged thing I do is take a walk to a carefully groomed park or go to the very hip natural springs pool in Austin. Do I ever encounter roaring avalanches in the Swiss Alps? No. Will I ever have to work as a miner near a lake of acid? I sure hope not. But some people do, and they do so atop the peaks of the world. It’s stunning to watch.
Grasslands: The Roots of Power
I call this one the badass hunter episode. You may think that your uncles are cool when they head out for deer season and bring back a few pounds of venison, but it’s nothing compared to what the hunters of the African bush endure as they hunt big game. These are serious hunters who will stop at nothing, not even the burning of the beautiful wild grasslands they inhabit, to feed their kin. It’s about survival. And killing lions and shit.
Rivers: Friend or Foe
Perhaps the most harrowing story of the entire series is that of a father who must walk his two children over a frozen river on a six-day trek to get them to school. Testing the ice as he moves, he slowly but surely takes them across brilliantly jagged terrain so that they can attend a semester of class. That is followed up by a brief feature about the ice men of Ottawa, Canada, who are responsible for using dynamite to break up an ice dam. Awesome.
Cities: Surviving the Urban Jungle
The final episode of Human Planet brings it all back to the place where many of us live: in or around cities. It’s angle is not the cities we’ve erected, but how we interact with nature within these concrete jungles. From the man who, along with his trusty falcon, is contracted to scare pigeons away from high-class hotels in Dubai to the Moroccan village that uses pigeon droppings to soften and increase the value of leather, we see a wide array of nature intersecting with urban life. There’s also a cool little vignette about Austin, TX and its 1.5 million bat inhabitants. They’re cool though, as they eat nearly 30 thousand pounds of bugs each night. Take that, bugs.
The entire series is presented in 1080i, and as I’ve mentioned it looks absolutely brilliant. Intense colors, sweeping shots across vast landscapes and finely captured details are breathtaking. Some videophiles out there will scoff over the 1080i presentation rather than 1080p, but you’re likely to get over it about 5-minutes into the entire experience. From an audio standpoint, once again the BBC has raised its game. Human Planet uses its 5.1 DTS-HD Master mix to create immersion into the environments. It’s got a silly score, but that’s all part of the fun. The mix of John Hurt’s earthy cadence and the sounds of the natural world are tuned just right, falling into a balance that allows you to be present in the moment and taught at the same time.
With such an expansive series of documentary segments, it’s hard not feel as if most of Human Planet is already a bonus feature. It’s the behind the scenes of our world. But that didn’t stop the BBC from giving us more. They’ve included 10 ten-minute “making of” featurettes, each of which show what their crew had to endure in order to capture some of the most breathtaking footage captured on film in years. Theirs is a story of intense preparation, exhaustive work in the field and moments of pure documentarian luck. Theirs is a story almost as harrowing as the subjects they are capturing. Almost.
Two additional featurettes — “Fez” and “Volcano” — take an even deeper look at two of the more dangerous terrains covered by the BBC camera crew. “Fez” further explores the Moroccan city in which pigeon poop is used for leather, in which the crew had to deal with what we can only imagine was an ungodly odor. “Volcano” is an equally stomach-turning look at their work at Kawah Ijen Volcano in East Java, right alongside a lake that spews sulfur, creating one of the most poisonous environments on Earth.
The last of the special features is the BD-Live content, the only feature exclusive to the Blu-ray release (unless, of course, you count to immaculate visual presentation of the show itself, something that DVD just can’t deliver). Right now there are only a few little Live features, but each feels like an extension of those 10 ten-minute segments. It’s further evidence of the expansive and ambitious anthropological project undertaken by the men and women of the BBC.
If it isn’t clear by now — through my title or my review up to this point — let me be clear: this is one Blu-ray that is well-worth your money. As the proud owner of many a BBC nature set, this has quickly and decisively risen to the top of the pile. In its exploration of the human condition, Human Planet captures much of what is most breathtaking about the world in which we live. It also captures the stories of the people who fight to survive on a daily basis, overcoming Earth’s greatest challenges. It’s a time capsule, but one of human will and strength. It’s the kind of thing I’ll save in order to show my own children some day. This is the reality of our world. These are the people with real struggles. This is the impressive, relentless nature of humanity’s struggle to conquer our environment.
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