Na­ture roars back in timely fash­ion

Planet Earth II builds on its pre­de­ces­sor’s global foot­print

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - CHRIS BAR­TON

A small, scaly baby iguana — no big­ger than a choco­late bar — hun­kers down on a beach as a snake glides along­side him. “A snake’s eyes aren’t very good,” a raspy voice ex­plains. The voice is Bri­tish and im­me­di­ately fa­mil­iar. Com­fort­ing, some­how. “But if the hatch­ling keeps its nerve ...” A low hum of strings rises in the score, and in a mo­ment, the iguana be­gins a des­per­ate, wild-legged sprint as per­cus­sion thun­ders.

One snake be­comes three, six, maybe two dozen and the night­mar­ish rep­tile chase is on. If the newly born iguana makes it to high ground, it sur­vives. If it doesn’t, well, na­ture wins.

“Planet Earth II” is, at its core, the ul­ti­mate thought­ful cel­e­bra­tion of life. Yet this fran­tic chase scene from the forth­com­ing se­ries, which had the In­ter­net buzzing, is more rem­i­nis­cent of some­thing out of the “Bourne” fran­chise.

The clip, which was re­leased as a teaser for the se­ries on YouTube in Novem­ber, has racked up more than 3 mil­lion views and of­fered one of the first looks at “Planet Earth II,” which de­buts at 9 p.m. Satur­day on BBC Earth in Canada. The Na­tional Free Pre­view event gives view­ers across Canada ac­cess to BBC Earth’s pro­gram­ming for three months.

“The first time I saw (the i guana se­quence) I just thought, I wish I had worked on a film where a di­rec­tor had cre­ated as ex­cit­ing an ac­tion se­quence as that,” said Os­car-win­ning com­poser Hans Zim­mer (“The Lion King”), who pro­vides the se­ries with a score that’s as eclec­tic as the jaw-drop­ping scenery.

Al­ready hav­ing aired in the U.K. late last year, the six-part se­quel to “Planet Earth” re­unites the voice of vet­eran nat­u­ral­ist and broad­caster David At­ten­bor­ough with farflung lo­cales and scenes of wildlife filmed with a star­tling in­ti­macy that ex­pands upon its 2007 pre­de­ces­sor.

“This is prob­a­bly the most com­pelling emo­tional sto­ry­telling that I’ve ever been in­volved in,” said Zim­mer, adding that his ad­mi­ra­tion for At­ten­bor­ough and his work as­sured his in­volve­ment with “Planet Earth II” from the mo­ment he was asked. “You look at our world as if it were a sci­ence-fic­tion movie,” said the com­poser, who also has crafted Os­car-nominated scores for, among other films, “Gla­di­a­tor,” “In­ter­stel­lar” and “In­cep­tion.” “And then, every once in a while, you have to pinch your­self be­cause you re­al­ize that ev­ery­thing that is strange and for­eign and ex­tra­or­di­nary is right here.”

It’s that ea­ger­ness to pro­vide pre­vi­ously un­seen glimpses of the nat­u­ral world that drove the se­ries’ crew to log more than 2,000 shoot­ing days in over 40 coun­tries over roughly 31/2 years. Like its pre­de­ces­sor, each episode is di­vided into geo­graphic themes such as “Moun­tains,” “Islands” and, in an in­trigu­ing look at the fron­tier be­tween man and na­ture, “Cities.”

With cli­mate change still an on­go­ing con­cern amid po­lit­i­cal up­heaval both in Bri­tain and the U.S., “Planet Earth II” feels espe­cially timely. But given the lead time and lo­gis­ti­cal de­mands of film­ing such a mam­moth project, its cre­ators had no way of pre­dict­ing that would be the case.

“We were purely look­ing at the nat­u­ral world and that sense of con­nect­ed­ness (with hu­man­ity),” said pro­ducer El­iz­a­beth White, whose “Islands” episode opens the se­ries. “It did feel timely that we wanted to try and re­con­nect peo­ple on a big, kind of global scale.”

The first in­stal­ment of “Planet Earth” of­fered up-close-and-per­sonal looks at of­ten un­fa­mil­iar wildlife and was among the first such doc­u­men­taries to take ad­van­tage of HD video. The se­quel ups the ante with 4K video, mo­tion-trig­gered cam­eras and the use of drones, which helped de­liver many of the breath­tak­ing views: lemurs hop­ping from tree to tree in the jun­gles of Mada­gas­car; the bat­tered coast of Zavodovski Is­land, which a mil­lion-plus chin­strap pen­guins call home.

“The chal­lenge there was find­ing pen­guins who were happy for us to film around them,” said White, who was on lo­ca­tion at the is­land. “And then there was one who came out with this big, f at belly, and he was so chilled out. Lit­er­ally, the cam­era­man kind of walked with him, fol­low­ing him. He’d stop. He’d wait. You find your­self with an an­i­mal that seems very re­cep­tive to it.”

Those dra­matic nar­ra­tives are what drive “Planet Earth II,” a de­tail that helped in­spire Zim­mer. “You can re­ally pour your heart into this. You can pour drama into this,” he said, com­par­ing his ap­proach to “Planet Earth II” to work­ing on the “Lion King” score. “You can tell the most amaz­ing story about the hu­man con­di­tion by not talk­ing about the hu­man con­di­tion.”

The se­ries pre­mière also fol­lows a re­gal, pale-grey al­ba­tross — which mates for life — wait­ing for his part­ner to re­turn after six months apart. While na­ture doc­u­men­taries can eas­ily fix­ate on the most harsh, un­for­giv- ing side of na­ture, this se­ries aims to strike a bal­ance.

“It would be wrong to tell that as a ‘she never came back’ story be­cause ac­tu­ally in that case, that was what we wanted, to show this con­tin­u­ing re­la­tion­ship that can go on for decades,” White said. “The film crew in many ways were go­ing through the same sort of emo­tional jour­ney (as the viewer) of, what hap­pens if she doesn’t ar­rive?”

In terms of at­tract­ing an au­di­ence, the se­quel’s re­cep­tion has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. The se­ries fi­nale av­er­aged 9.5 mil­lion view­ers in the U.K., out­draw­ing the fi­nale of the pop­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion show “The X Fac­tor” (“We got some­thing right!” Zim­mer crowed). How­ever, the se­ries has drawn crit­i­cism for en­cour­ag­ing a sense of com­pla­cency about en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. While each episode em­pha­sizes that the habi­tats it ex­am­ines are un­der threat, how dire can the sit­u­a­tion be when they look so lush and beau­ti­ful?

“It’s not a ham­mer-peo­ple-over-the-head, doom-and-gloom mes­sage,” White ad­mits. “It’s very much ‘Look at this won­der­ful place — bear in mind, this is hap­pen­ing, these places are frag­ile’ ... but it isn’t in­tended to be a con­ser­va­tion film.”

Still, there is a sense of hav­ing made a dif­fer­ence. White re­counted in­stances of meet­ing con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cers on lo­ca­tion who said they chose their ca­reer after see­ing one of At­ten­bor­ough’s na­ture pro­grams.

“I think it’s quite hard to quan­tify what mea­sures peo­ple take,” White said. “But if they feel more con­nected to na­ture, that’s a re­ally good start.”

BBC AMER­ICA, EMMA NAP­PER

A young spi­der mon­key feed­ing on fresh leaves in Gu­atemala from the BBC Earth se­ries, “Planet Earth II.”

TOM HUGH-JONES, BBC AMER­ICA

The moun­tain­ous rain­forests of the Choco re­gion in Ecuador are not only some of the wettest on Earth but also some of the most di­verse.

BBC AMER­ICA

“Planet Earth II” gets up close with some of the world’s most in­ter­est­ing crea­tures, such as the Male Glass frog in Costa Rica.

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