Review of "Life (DVD)"

published 20/07/2010 | hogsflesh
Member since : 19/04/2010
Reviews : 835
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Pro Some great footage
Cons The series seems to lack focus; the music is awful
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"The call of nature"

A bear catching a fish

A bear catching a fish

This BBC boxset currently costs about £20 on amazon on DVD. The blu-ray version is £30 but I don’t have that – I assume it’s the same but nicer looking.

This is the most recent big nature documentary series from the BBC, which aired in autumn 2009. Although the legendary David Attenborough has retired from actually going out and prodding animals in their natural habitats, he is still doing narration. Frankly, without his soft, authoritative voice a nature documentary doesn’t feel genuine, and they’ll have a tough job replacing him when he’s not around anymore. (Actually, they almost certainly won’t bother. The kind of shows Attenborough became famous for aren’t made any more. Nowadays if someone went to romp with gorillas it would be a struggling celebrity, and the show would be about the celebrity, not the gorillas. This belief – that members of girl bands are inherently more interesting than gorillas – epitomises everything that’s wrong with modern television.)

The American edition of Life was narrated by Oprah Winfrey, so for goodness’ sake don’t import it!

Anyway, much like Planet Earth, this is a big, over-arching series which doesn’t focus on a specific type of animal or habitat as Life of Mammals or The Blue Planet did. For this reason, I found it a bit less exciting than some of the other recent BBC nature series. It felt slightly random – the supposed premise was examining how various different plants and animals deal with the challenges life throws at them, but I defy anyone to name me a single nature documentary ever which doesn’t have that premise.

There are ten episodes, each an hour long. That sounds pretty good. However, the last ten minutes of each episode is a dull ‘making of’ segment. While I love what these programme makers do, I have no interest in how they do it. “What’s that? You spent eight weeks in an igloo waiting for the exact right shot of a walrus? And it only lasted 30 seconds on screen? Wow. I really, really don’t care.” It becomes even less impressive when you realise that the first episode, ‘Challenges of Life’, is basically a sampler of things we’ll see in later episodes, with very little material that isn’t repeated.

The nine remaining episodes are usually devoted to one type of animal – mammals, say, or birds, or plants, which aren’t animals at all. Primates get their own episode. How well you like each one will depend on how interested you are in each type of creature. I’ll admit to having found the episodes about birds and plants rather dull (except for the carnivorous plants, which were pretty cool). Fish were surprisingly boring, apart from the sharks. I was a little disappointed with the episode called ‘Creatures of the Deep’. I was expecting it to be about those really creepy things that live too far down for sunlight – all bioluminescence and mouths bigger than their heads. It turned out to be about ocean dwelling lifeforms that weren’t fish – crabs, urchins etc. There was some good stuff in there, to be sure – that big starfish thing; the swarms of squid attacking some fish; the weird cuttlefish mating rituals. But it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Still, there is some remarkable material in this series, all filmed with the usual care and beauty. Nature’s infinite variety never fails to amaze, especially when it’s doing exciting things like eating other bits of nature. I tend to zone out a bit at the more conceptual stuff – millions of bats flying to the exact same bit of forest in Africa to eat fruit is great in principle, but not so exciting in practice. A bunch of polar bears eating a dead whale, on the other hand, is right up my street.

Most impressive probably were the komodo dragons, vile lizards which ganged up on and killed a hapless buffalo in a process that took several weeks! (This is the one episode where it’s worth watching the ‘making of’ segment at the end.) Also downright alarming was the way some cheetahs have learned to attack as a team to bring down prey they couldn’t contend with alone, like an ostrich. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the ‘toad eating tarantula’ in action. There were times I wondered about the names of some of these animals. Could Attenborough possibly be making them up? I’m just about prepared to accept the ‘jesus christ lizard’, but the ‘sarcastic fringe head’? I think not.

On the downside, there seemed to be some duplication of things we’ve seen in other recent series. Sure, elephants and bears are always worth checking up on, but dolphins profoundly annoy me, and meerkats were cute in the 80s but we really don’t need to see more of them now.

As ever, though, the real let-down is the music. It underlines what we’re seeing in the most appallingly manipulative way imaginable. If we’re not getting dreary world music to reflect wherever the animal lives, we’re getting music that blatantly seeks to give human characteristics to essentially unknowable organisms. Music affects the way we see things. If a shot of a solitary elephant walking at dusk is accompanied by sad music, we’ll assume the elephant is sad, perhaps about to die or something. In reality it might just be looking for a place to go to the toilet. If you play happy music over footage of a toad escaping from a tarantula, the audience will assume that toads escaping tarantulas is a good thing, which of course it isn’t – tarantulas need to eat as well.

Usually it’s dolphins that bring out the very worst in the composers, but here the music that annoyed me most was the stuff when the flying fish took to the air – an amazing bit of footage that really didn’t need a heroic sounding theme to accompany it. I guess it was mildly amusing to have a pastiche of the music from 2001 when we saw a monkey smashing nuts with a rock. Otherwise, I still maintain that these should be shown without incidental music.

The scripts also showed worrying signs of of anthropomorphisation, with animals accused of being ‘skilful’, or ‘brave’, when all we were really seeing were inherited behaviours that they couldn’t avoid even if they were aware there was an alternative. Why not just get Johnny Morris (or modern day equivalent) to narrate them all in funny voices, as if the animals were talking to each other? (“Please don’t eat me, Mr Bear.” “I’m sorry, Salmon, but if I don’t I shan’t have enough body fat to hibernate.” See? It still gets all the relevant information across.)

Perhaps the main problem with the series is that it’s hard to see the point. Because it strays all over the place we don’t get much in-depth knowledge of any one group of animals. One wonders if they’re not rushing these series out a bit too quickly, presumably for the money, or perhaps just to get as much from Sir David as they can before he retires for real, or passes away. There weren’t as many big sequences in this series to compare to, say, the deep sea stuff in The Blue Planet, or the lions killing that elephant in Planet Earth. Good though the footage here is, there’s very little that’s show-stopping. I would blame nature, but I suspect that would be a tad mean-spirited. Maybe they should just wait until they’ve got more good footage before they unleash their next blockbuster nature documentary?

Still, this is worth owning for nature documentary fans. It will probably reduce in price by another fiver or so in a few months, so I’d leave it until then. There are plenty of other series to get first!

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Comments on this review

  • brereton66 published 04/10/2010
    I think the point of this series is to show off HD. I've only seen couple of episodes on a freebie but the number off ultra slo-mo shots of things splashing in rivers look like so many adverts for Sky's HD channels and is quite distracting. The focus seems to be mostly on the flying water droplets and not on the hippo/bear/seal that you'd think would be the main point. That said, I'm putting off buying this series until I upgrade to Bluray at some point.
  • tallulahbang published 26/07/2010
    Oprah bloody Winfrey? Pah! xx
  • jonathanb published 26/07/2010
    This is the sort of thing I feel I really should watch but never do. My viewing time is fairly limited so I gravitate to escapist fiction rather than anything more "worthy" like this. That said, it does sound good and I really should see it. Perhaps when I retire. In fact that's a good idea - the way things are going I'll be about 85 by then so probably too deaf to be bothered by the irritating music.
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Product Information : Life (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Sub Genre: Animals & Wildlife

Title: L

DVD Region: DVD

EAN: 5051561030680

Actor(s) (Last name, First name): D

Production Year: 2009


Listed on Ciao since: 16/07/2010