Planet Earth II: The Harrowing, High-Def Nature Thrills of ‘Life’

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There’s something so basic about the allure of Life – and its predecessor, Planet Earth – that you almost feel odd giving it props.

These are massive, international productions that have simply taken the time, and invested the money, to show you things from our world that blow your mind. It’s a melding of technology, human tenacity and natural science on a scale that we’ve never before experienced. As a New Yorker, trapped in the asphault jungle, it makes me want to bail on town for a year and travel the globe.

Ever since I attended the star-studded Life gala at Lincoln Center, people have been asking me: Is this as stunning as Planet Earth? And I can say without reservation: Yes. You sit there slack-jawed, with eyes bugging out, not just wondering how the hell they managed to capture such stunning imagery, but also how animals ever adapted to the point where they could operate in such extreme conditions. (More at Techland: March Madness for nerds, round one: 64 villain duels!)

I still remember watching Planet Earth for the first time, on my roomate’s high-definition, wide-screen TV. That was the first time I made it a point to track down a high-def channel, the moment when I knew I had to upgrade my TV, my DVD player and my sound equipment. In one crystal clear episode after another, this show – about whales, penguins, bats, grass – was absolutely riveting. I started ditching movie screenings, just so I could see the latest episode.

Planet Earth on Blu-ray is still reason enough to buy a high-def home entertainment set-up.

We’ll be writing more about Life after you get a chance to see some of it for yourself – its 2-part debut airs this Sunday night on Discovery – but the basic premise is this: In 130 stories, spread out across 10 episodes, we witness the most amazing tales of adaptation and survival on the planet. Broken down by the species that have cracked the code in terms of endurance and survival. While Planet Earth was about the amazing habitats on this orb, and some of the spectacular events that play out within each habitat, Life cuts directly to the animals enduring the most extreme situations imaginable. It’s like the best moments of Planet Earth, lined up on top of one another, and not only do they present a fascinating portrait of the evolutionary process in action, through which animals learned to adapt, but it’s just stunning, compelling TV. Nature, in all its primal glory.

It took four years – over 3,000 days – across all seven continents to capture the footage that comprises the 10 episodes – and one behind-the-scenes special – of Life. It also required state of the art filmmaking technology, like the HD Heli-Gimbal for aerial shots, extreme high-speed capture (which reaches the point of around 1,000 frames per second on some sequences) as well as infra-red, microscoping and time-lapse photography – including underwater time-lapse. It’s really quite something, to see animals scurry across the water (see the photo at the top of the page) in ultra slow-motion, or a lizard tongue, flicking out 20 feet while the action is slowed to a crawl.

There are numerous scientific firsts here too – the first time that we’ve seen footage of dolphins off Florida using circles of mud to trap fish and score an easy meal, of bulldog bats hunting fish, or of a Komodo Dragon feast. We’ll be writing much more next week about an episode in which we see for the first time a “humpback whale heat run,” in which males pummel each other at high speeds over hundreds of miles of ocean for a chance at mating with the female. Filmed from below, from above, as well as on the water’s surface near Tonga, it’s a breathtaking sequence to behold.

Like most journalism, there are TV documentaries that achieve greatness through poetry and or profound revelations. And then there are those docs that sparkle because their makers know they’ve found a great story, and now merely have to get out of its way. That’s always what I felt Planet Earth was: You had such captivating, unforgettable imagery, just let us see them as clearly and intimately as possible. And it’s the same in Life. There are heartwarming scenes of parenting, gut-wrenching battles for survival, astounding acts of perseverance and determination. The world’s a brutal place, and it truly is survival of the fittest, and in “Life,” we get our front-row close-up.

They put in the time, got the footage, and laid it out as smartly and vividly as possible. What more could you ask for? Time to set the TiVo, and, if you haven’t already done so, rush out there and get your 1080 TV.

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