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‘Blue Planet II’ review: Worthy sequel with a warning on the environment

BBC America's "Blue Planet II" looks at environmental

BBC America's "Blue Planet II" looks at environmental dangers to marine environments. Credit: BBC AMERICA / Rachel Butler

THE SERIES “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Saturday on AMC, BBC America, IFC, WE tv and SundanceTV

WHAT IT’S ABOUT This is the next installment of the BBC’s (and BBC America’s) ongoing “Planet Earth” series, but as the name also indicates, these seven hours also essentially comprise the sequel to “The Blue Planet,” the jewel of BBC’s Natural History unit that aired in the early 2000s. Four years in production, “II” went to every ocean, and continent, while production teams spent 6,000 diving hours recording what the producers say are various “firsts” — including the first submersible dive 3,280 feet in the waters off Antarctica. Once again, David Attenborough narrates.

MY SAY The original “The Blue Planet” was the crowning achievement of the nature documentary genre, and its successor isn’t about to cede the crown. Still magnificent, still hypnotic, “II” even offers an added bonus with a stirring score by Hans Zimmer that matches music to the magic.

The differences, however, are significant, also sobering. “II,” for example, is shorter by a couple of hours, and also seems slighter in scope, covering six ecosystems compared with the eight covered in “I.” The pictures are still spectacular, but further enhanced by various advances in technology.

But the key departure you can probably guess: “Blue Planet II” is an urgent and at times nakedly emotional plea to save the oceans of the world. The 2001 series was a celebration. This follow-up is a warning.

Not wishing to harsh any viewer’s mellow too much or too often, the alarm bells invariably go off in the closing minutes of each hour. The seas are dying. The culprit is us. “II” never dwells on the reasons for long, while it invariably proffers a ray of light. “There is cause for hope” is one of Attenborough’s favorite lines here. He rarely says it with much conviction, though.

Each hour is a Cassandra in its own unique way. The third episode on coral reefs, for example, glances at their worldwide destruction because of rising temperatures, then goes into greater detail in the final hour. The fourth hour (“Big Blue”) travels far from land to the most remote places on the planet, where the scourge of plastic has claimed the lives of pilot whales. They’ve ingested granulated plastic that’s re-expressed in the milk they feed their young. That sets up a line that Attenborough does say with conviction: “Unless the flow of plastics is reduced, marine life will be poisoned for many years to come.”

The final hour (“Our Blue Planet”) is a parting shot at worldwide environmental destruction. Those rare albatross chicks viewers first meet in “Big Blue”? Their siblings are dying because they swallowed hundreds of plastic bits. Those spectacular bottlenose dolphins that have a starring role throughout this series? They too may be dying because of plastic ingestion.

As fans of “Blue Planet” and so many other glorious Attenborough specials of the past 50 years know, his message has long been one of hope, and joy, while full of an abiding sense that the world just outside our door is more adaptive and resilient than we can possibly imagine.

But at 91, Attenborough’s tone has shifted. “Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet,” he pleads in the closing seconds. “The future of humanity, indeed all life on earth, now depends on us.”

BOTTOM LINE A worthy successor to the original, “Blue Planet II” also brings an urgent environmental warning that the first lacked: It demonstrates that the seas are in trouble and that the world must act.

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