Nature films represent a body of work very much under threat in a society that has come to see intellectual pursuits with utter contempt, if not outright vilification. March of the Penguins was adopted by the Christian right in the US, its anthropomorphizing of the yearly journey of emperor penguins in the Antarctica played for an ‘aww shucks’ effect with Morgan Freeman’s softly-softly voiceover and practically no violence shown between the animals, paternalistically and puritanically omitting anything that might offend a conservative family audience. After all, the truth occasionally hurts.
Still, amongst the ‘documentaries’ that feature nothing more than repetitive subjects, uninspired photography and a voiceover from an ignorant celebrity or some asshole prattling about the “ex-treeeeeme predators!”, there is some golden wheat in all the chaff. David Attenborough’s work continues to stun, Walking With Dinosaurs is impressive, as is the oddly affecting Meerkat Manor.
Still, all nature programs remain important for the same reason: no matter what the intellectual exercise that one is embarking upon, the destination invariably involves learning something about ourselves, our intellectual limits, and our species as a whole.
This is particularly true of evolutionary theory. Overly-sensitive religious types would rather sacrifice their first born to their local sky god than subscribe to it, the one thing they all have in common being their desire to discourage a questioning mind. Evolution is a purely intellectual exercise, as it doesn’t have a product to market. It simply asks where we came from and where we are going. Darwin supplied some suggestions about the former. The Future is Wild examines the latter.
The Future is Wild was the brainchild of a team of animators, wildlife photographers, and scientists to construct what the world will look like 5 million, 100 million, and 200 million years from now. The first step was to consult geologists to predict how continents will continue to move based upon how landmasses have moved in the past. Next, climatologists built the plants and ecosystems onto the future maps. Biologists completed the picture by pairing flora with the fauna based on how species have evolved in the past to world changes. The result is disorienting, surprising, and occasionally disturbing. Rule one was that the human species is extinct. Five million years seems far enough to assume this is the case. People are rapidly losing their adaptive skills thanks to a combination of overpopulation beyond resources and increasingly rigid social systems. Herein lies the fascinating part: what happens once humans are out of the picture?
Five million years from now, the advancing ice age has decimated the rain forests. The animals resemble what inhabits the world today, with some adaptations. Mammals still dominate the surface, though predatory birds have taken over the savannah. Volcanic eruptions become common, and the planet warms up.
One hundred million years from now, the planet is steamy, and the air is packed with carbon dioxide and oxygen. The animals have become huge compared to their modern day equivalents; insects are measured in meters. The atmosphere is volatile, and the Earth’s lava core even more so. At the end of this period, massive pan-global volcanic activity fills the skies with ash and carbon dioxide for a couple of decades. This is a relatively brief period, but enough to kill the phytoplankton in the oceans and decimate the land plants, which in turn causes mass extinctions of virtually anything large and/or unable to survive on minimal food intake until the sunlight returns and the plants and plankton rebound in numbers. Life is challenged periodically by these catastrophic events to come up with a solution rather quickly, and some lifeforms can adapt to survive a lack of food, sunlight, or drastic changes in the weather. After these events, such as the meteorite strike that killed the dinosaurs, or the massive land devastation caused by human industry, the organisms that remain proliferate, and continue to adapt to the new circumstances.
Two hundred million years from now, nearly all life has been wiped out, and the survivors evolve into increasingly bizarre creatures like terrestrial squid the size of elephants, and sharks equipped with neon directional signals for hunting purposes.
To be honest, the animated effects are somewhat dated, inferior to what we see on Hollywood movies, but TFIW compensates by not featuring any Transformers or scantily-clad Spartans. Its dazzle is in the ideas behind the effects, and how they came to be.
TFIW performs best when it comes to these ideas, the challenge put to living beings to survive, and their response. The socially awkward scientists in bow ties who invented these strange conditions and creatures look like excited children as they explore the possibilities, creating empathy for anyone else wandering ‘what if?’ The apocalypse is its staring point, looking forward to what might be, and testing the limits of our ability to understand the fluid life form that is the planetary ecosystem.
This is more than cerebral wanking – this is an unadorned picture about the relentless struggle for survival, every species affecting a careful balance between their resources and their niche rivals. Each snapshot places you in the center of predator-versus-prey relationships that have been ongoing for millennia, and as such hold a unique tension. The action is raw, and proceeds without a shred of sentiment. Giant airborne insects armed with razor sharp forelegs spear birds in flight, monkeys fall prey to giant meat-eating birds, and massive intelligent squid are torn to ribbons by swift moving sharks. All species are doomed to extinction, and perhaps the process of life itself is doomed. They – we – only exist for a brief period. Perhaps one species will have an adaptation that will allow it to be one of the few to survive a cataclysm, and life is allowed to exist for another millennia.
One episode in particular struck a nerve, taking place 100 million years from now. Spiders work to weave giant webs that span an entire canyon, the purpose of which is to collect… seeds. Strange. The spiders amass hills of seeds in their cavernous nests, but spiders are carnivores. Out of the shadows emerges a small rodent. Whilst surrounded by carnivorous spiders, these mice-like creatures eat the seeds, occasionally being killed and eaten by the spiders. The mice are being farmed, you see. The rodent presented here is the last mammal on earth, reduced to hiding in a cave, livestock for a spider colony. Having slowly lost the competition for resources to birds, reptiles, and insects, the mammal is to be the first major group to vanish. This seems sensible, as mammals are one of the fastest-disappearing groups anyway, occupying most of the spots on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species listing. Currently, the pace of extinctions of plants, amphibians, and mammals are at their greatest since the Cretaceous period, all due to human action.
I am quite used to the idea of humans going extinct. We seem incapable of making intelligent decisions, despite intelligence being our only advantage (cue Clarence Darrow monologue). It gave me a chill, however, to think that any animal that even resembles us would be wiped off the face of the earth. This affords a unique chance to come to terms with one’s own morality in the grandest existential way.
Every form of life has a desire to preserve and perpetuate, and the human race is no exception. This, however, is the uncompromising world, and nature is presented as the stern, ruthless cunt that she is. Among its many strengths, it’s this calmly combative reality check that The Future Is Wild does best of all.