THE DOCUMENTARY SERIES “Planet Earth II”
WHEN | WHERE Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. on AMC, BBC America, Sundance
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This sequel to the 2006 classic “Planet Earth” is similarly divided by ecosystems. Saturday’s begins with an hour on island wildlife. Subsequent episodes over the coming weeks are devoted to mountains, jungles, deserts and grasslands. In a major departure, “II” will devote a full hour to the wildlife in cities around the world. “The Making of Planet Earth II” is the seventh and final episode. “II” deploys ultra hi-def, and numerous other technologies that did not exist 11 years ago.
MY SAY After “Planet Earth” aired on U.S. TV, and after viewers had reattached their jaws, most realized they had just seen the greatest nature documentary of their lives. Other viewers decided they’d already seen the greatest — 2001’s “Blue Planet” — but who were they to quibble? “Life on Earth” (1979), “The Life of Birds” (1998) and “The Life of Mammals” (2002) were each stupendous TV achievements in their own right, too, each produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, and narrated by the Walter Cronkite of the nature documentary, Sir David Attenborough. (Sigourney Weaver narrated the U.S. version of “Planet Earth” for Discovery that aired in ’07.)
“Planet Earth,” however, had a somewhat different mandate from these others because it was shadowed — if not quite occluded — by the specter of global warming. Rarely a Cassandra before this, Attenborough had seen more than enough to justify pessimism. “Planet Earth” wasn’t a requiem, but at moments it played like one.
“Planet Earth II” still waves that red warning flag, and for the most part still waves it off-screen. Attenborough wants viewers forewarned (“Never have these wildernesses been as fragile and as precious as they are today”), but he doesn’t want them depressed, either. “Earth II” remains a celebration while challenging viewers to imagine a world where a “Planet Earth III” might not be possible.
Meanwhile, the glory — and money — is on the screen. Superficially, “II” might sound like déjà vu all over again. The penguins reliably make their obligatory appearance by the end of the first hour. As usual, some of the same (reductive) stories abound. Animals’ lives are mostly about hunting, eating, mating (and repeat).
What’s unique here, breathtakingly so, is proximity. The camera is eye to eye with the subjects, and when they move, the camera moves, too. Some of this extreme intimacy was seen in 2015’s “The Hunt,” but in “II” you become a virtual participant in the hunt. There’s a sequence in Saturday’s opener where baby iguanas elude racer snakes that’s as vivid, and surprisingly dramatic, as any scene ever filmed by the Natural History Unit.
Of course, the difference between 2006 and 2017 is technology. Miniature cameras, drones, trip wires and even Go-Pros are expertly deployed here. Prepare to reattach those jaws once again.
BOTTOM LINE Spectacular. What else?