Planet Earth – Nature filmmaking was redefined by this blockbuster, the result of naturalists and zoologists being given unprecedented funding and time to capture film of the world’s last remaining wild places. As a supreme ode to the beauty of this lonely planet, it is unparalleled. As a vehicle for dramatic stories about what animals must do to survive in the unforgiving natural world, it is genuinely moving. And as the largest canvas for the most beautiful cinematography ever filmed, it is flawless. Though the hype surrounding the project was deafening, and the merchandising inescapable, it pays to return to Planet Earth with fresh eyes to consider just how much work went into the shots that made it onscreen. David Attenborough performs the narration and unifies the work with the larger view that our planet is very much taken for granted. A much-overused phrase to be sure, but at a time when human capacity to change the world is unsurpassed, we scarcely understand the long-term effects of our current policies and activities. That industry places all of the visually stunning vistas on display here in jeopardy is beyond question. What the series forces the viewer to ask is, what else is placed at risk? Society has difficulty weathering a relatively small stock market crash; what would occur if the natural resources we depend upon are pushed beyond their ability to withstand us? There has been no better series for considering our place in the world, and the crossroads that we have reached.
Atom – Another bit of brilliant storytelling as Professor Jim Al Khalili approaches the baffling subject of the atomic and subatomic world from a historical perspective. As he reviews the development of atomic theory from traditionalists like Einstein to the mind-boggling theories of Heisenberg and Bohr, the documentary is peppered with choice anecdotes. For example, Boltzman conceived of atoms to develop equations to explain the behavior of steam, an experimental afterthought resulted in the proof that atoms are almost entirely empty space, and that Erwin Schroedinger was inspired to theorize that a particle was a wave after he spent a week wearing out some Austrian whore. Khalili has a gift for expressing atomic and subatomic theory in a way that is accessible to those unused to thinking in terms of mathematical equations. This task is nothing to sniff at since Heisenberg noted that it is impossible and intellectually dishonest to even attempt to form a visual picture of an atom or its fundamental particles. In fact, it was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that conceptualized the view that pure math is the only way to understand the subatomic world. And so this would hold true for the intergalactic world as well. Sit back and enjoy as you learn about how solid objects do not actually exist as we think of them, and that we are a cloud of particles defined not by position or speed, but by probability and equations.
Blue Planet: Seas of Life – There will be a lot of David Attenborough on this list, it would seem. For good reason, since his efforts have yielded the best shot and most thoughtful considerations of the natural world. In Blue Planet, the vast ecosystems of the ocean are examined by system; the sterile open ocean, the largely unknown deep, the rich coral seas, the variable and adaptive tidal seas. Though individual species take center stage, the systematic approach avoids the pitfall so common to nature films: having too narrow a view. All exist within a system, and one that is carefully balanced. The Deep chapter in particular is edifying in its look at a habitat that has been explored less than the moon, with new species discovered on each dive. Deep ocean vents shooting water as hot as molten lead (but still liquid due to the pressure) are encrusted by a riot of organisms, all living in total independence of the energy of the sun. A glimpse of early Earth, perhaps. There is so much content in this series that its rewatchability is absurdly high.
Earth: The Biography – Watching Professor Iain Stewart wax poetic about the forces that shaped the Earth is akin to a Euro discussing the greatest sport in the world – you would have to lack a pulse to avoid being caught up in his joy for the subject. Covering topics as vast and complex as air (atmosphere), water (oceans), fire (volcanism), and ice is no mean feat, but Dr. Stewart burns through these with great speed in a way that ties the systems together. The visuals are remarkable, and more than justify investing in a hi-definition player. Most of all, this is a pure educational experience, and one that bears rewatching. The deft explanation for how the ocean currents and the deep ocean conveyor work together to cycle oxygen to the deep and nutrients to the surface to make those oceans highly productive is not to be missed. Indeed, the chapter on water connects solidly with climate change literature to suggest that the deep ocean conveyor can be shut off rather easily, and once this happens the oceans will become incapable of sustaining life in large amounts. Considering this is where the human species gets much of its food and half of its oxygen, that is an arresting conclusion.
Ocean Odyssey – Using both actual footage and computer animation, the life cycle of the elusive Sperm Whale is examined in this well-executed work by the team from Walking With Dinosaurs. The incorporation of CGI is seamless, and essential for never-photographed details like a battle with a giant squid, or the whale’s use of a sonar unit powerful enough to knock a diver unconscious. The documentary covers the birth and development of the young whale, how it learns to hunt, the way they breed and communicate, their transglobal migration, and eventual death. There are details provided about how humans have impacted their habitat with overfishing and whaling, but fortunately these are not terminal tangents that would rob the feature of its focus. It suggests an optimistic future for this and the other great whales for their adaptability, perhaps in a way that will take advantage of global warming in ways other animals cannot.
Life in Cold Blood – Unlike his series about the oceans or Mammals, Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood has a difficult task to be accomplished without the help of photogenic animals. The cold-blooded animal groups of amphibians, snakes, toads, and crocodiles are viewed with a distinct lack of romance by our species. That we reserve the term ‘reptilian’ for the most detestable among us says it all. Nonetheless, the film crew manages to capture moments that are nothing less than spectacular, and dispels the many general myths people hold about cold-blooded animals. Mammals and birds consume more than 90% of their intake to maintain their body temperature, so reptiles and amphibians are far more efficient. Their behavior is complex, their adaptability surprising, and their ability to survive may be far greater than their warm-blooded cousins.† Snakes that fly, crocodiles that carefully nurture their young, and a lizard that mourns its fallen mate will change the way you think about these animal groups. They are in no way primitive; indeed their very existence suggests their equality with us on the evolutionary scale.
The Story of Maths – Though a ponderous subject, if you are not of a mathematical bent, the theory behind maths can be fascinating when explained by a master of the form. This series looks at the history of mathematical systems and how they evolved through history, driven by practical need and intellectual curiosity. Professor Marcus du Sautoy covers the history of how systems of math are developed, and his passion for the subject is infectious. The ancient Egyptians needed to come up with a way to predict the Nile floods for farming purposes, as well as to measure land and calculate taxation. The number system borne of this need was used to create fractions, a binary system that predated computers by 3000 years, geometric series, and the use of pi. The Babylonians developed a number system based on 60, as it was easy to divide, and recognized the use of place values. Pythagoras developed a theorem (the name of which escapes me) and was a part of developing the system of mathematical and geometric proofs that is still used today. Most importantly, he proposed (inspired by the work of blacksmiths striking anvils) the harmonic series to understand music, and that the universe itself was subject to mathematical laws. This was a stepping stone to theoretical physics whereby math has been used to predict the existence of exoplanets, the existence of certain fundamental particles, and the presence of supermassive black holes. And so forth. Never has math been presented in such a clear and relevant way.
Nature’s Most Amazing Events – The focus here is not on a particular animal or ecosystem, but on a remarkable event that occurs at the intersection between opportune weather, available resources, and the massive migrations of animals that move to take advantage of same. Though there is some educational value in how these tremendous events occur, really this is an excuse to show off your hi-definition player. The sound is powerful, the visuals are unmatched by anything outside of the Planet Earth documentary, and the drama is worthy of a master storyteller. The two most impressive chapters focus upon the unique world where the desert becomes a swamp teeming with life in the Okavango Delta, and the rare but intense Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa. The Okavango Delta becomes a haven for animals that will cross miles of inhospitable desert to take advantage of the brief bonanza that gathers; for a herd of elephants, their survival depends upon it during this dramatic passage. The Sardine Run culminates in a cloud of sardines visible from a mile in the air, attacked from every quarter by the largest army of predators on the planet. More accomplished visual poetry that this does not exist.
Besieged Fortress – Disaster movies get this resounding answer from the nature film genre as a seemingly unstoppable phalanx of driver ants descend upon a termite mound in Burkina Faso. Though the termite mound has a defense, they are hopelessly outmatched and their queen is helplessly immobile. Though one is not predisposed to caring about the survival of an insect, the drama that is set up by this efficiently paced and cleverly plotted tour de force will grab hold of you nonetheless. It is possible that some of the shots were tampered with by the filmmaker, but considering how well this story is told, who gives a shit?
Life After People – One of the more engaging thought experiments of the decade; if people disappeared, what would happen to the Earth and to the things we have left behind? How quickly would entropy claim our tremendous successes? Quite quickly, as it turns out. This well done and exhaustively researched work (based in part on Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us) speaks volumes toward our species-centric view of our world, and our relative insignificance. Though humankind wreaks havoc upon the biosphere and the future of virtually any species living in the wild, the Earth itself and any flora or fauna that manage to survive our last throes would get along swimmingly without our presence, and scrupulously remove any trace of our existence within 100,000 years. A cough in the history of our planet. Try to guess what actually might survive. This was presented both as a single film and a series.
Meerkat Manor – This became a cultural phenomenon in 2005, much to everyone’s surprise. It turns out that suricates have a family dynamic as involving as a soap opera, and for the Whiskers clan, the danger afforded by the Kalahari provided a tense atmosphere in which the tale unfolded. Unlike in fiction, none of these characters are protected by an author, and the predators that watch carefully from the scrub are indifferent to the narrative. This brought an unnerving unpredictability to what would otherwise be saturated by anthropomorphizing bullshit. There is some educational value to this, but its strongest asset is its ability to suck you in to the daily bustle of a group of animals with remarkably complex behavior. What is most shocking is how emotionally involving it can be – and if you watched this all the way through and did not shed a tear or two along the way, you are made of stone.
The Universe – There is no larger subject that could be tackled, but the impressive array of planetary scientists, astronomers, and physicists are game enough. The Universe makes it cool to be a geek again with an overpowering series that injects immense amounts of Whoa into every single episode. Detailed and intricate, yet accessible to a layman, this series addresses subjects of more than a purely intellectual interest. The first season dealt largely with the solar system, bristling with fun facts like how Earth’s magnetic field is the only reason we still have an atmosphere (unlike Mars), Jupiter has a core of solid Hydrogen metal, and that Neptune’s distance from the sun is what allows it to have 1,000 mph winds. The subsequent seasons leapt even further off the map, considering Dark Energy, the ways in which the Earth can be destroyed, the life cycle of a star and the odd phenomenon of the neutron star. Even if you feel the subject matter is alien to you, the elation of the scientists who provide intuitive models for understanding rather strange concepts will rub off on you. Another fun fact: if you fell on a neutron star, you would be converted to a pure lump of neutrons. Awesome.
Winged Migration – One of the most visually arresting films ever made, Winged Migration departs from the standard model of nature films by having relatively little narration, and providing information with images when possible. This is to its credit, as this is a feature to be appreciated in silence. The vast clouds of birds swooping with the wind currents, the storm of gannets dive bombing into the water, and the impossibly distant migrations of geese create unforgettable images. Another fascinating aspect that made Winged Migration unique was the filmmaker’s direct involvement in the film and resulting manipulation of the action. In order to capture some of the images, the crew filmed a group of geese that were being trained to locate their nesting grounds with an ultralight aircraft. The birds were shot from a distance of mere feet, allowing shots that will likely never be made again. This has been a source of criticism, but again the goal was not perfect realism, but achievement of ideal cinema. Once a subject is photographed, one cannot claim it was untouched in the process.
Charles Darwin and The Tree of Life – In a way, this is reflective of not only the life and impact of Charles Darwin and his unifying theories of biology and evolution, but also reflective of the presenter, whose name is synonymous with the nature film. David Attenborough reviews the history of how Darwin came to realize the connection between all living things going back to one remote ancestor. Visuals are interspersed with footage of Attenborough discussing some zoological item of interest from thirty years prior. Subtly, this gives shading to the importance of the theory over the last 200 years. After all, without this quantum leap, there would have been no understanding of the relationship between animals, plants, bacteria, and whatever the current planetary population may yet evolve into. Nature films tend to be static despite themselves, as a snapshot in time. The Tree of Life makes clear that we are on a continuously moving arrow through time, and our actions have powerful impacts upon this tree’s branches. It is a fitting tribute to one of the most extraordinary minds in science, and the difficulty he faced amidst ignorance and superstition in bringing this knowledge to humankind.
March of the Penguins – Its popularity resulted in some backlash, thanks in no small part to a contempt for the opinions of the herd, for Oscar, and for that stupid anthropomorphizing voice over by Morgan Freeman. Like any nature film or documentary not presented by someone who is an expert in the field, it is best to turn the volume off and play something else in the background. For the visuals alone this film deserves to be considered with the best of the decade. The extraordinary difficulty of shooting footage during winter in Antarctica (where gasoline itself becomes a jelly and exposed human flesh freezes in seconds) by itself brushes aside any objections to this masterful examination of the survival instinct. Luc Jacquet edits the footage to create a story about what a species must do to simply exist from one year to the next, the meager rewards, and the impossible risks that are taken. Anyone who felt this movie was about cute penguins and their cuddly offspring read way too much Nietzsche.
If We Had No Moon – An intriguing intellectual exercise whereby eminent astronomers consider what would happen if Earth had no moon; indeed, the foremost question is why such an unusual event occurred. It is suspected that Earth evolved simple life even before the Cambrian period, with a deep global ocean that drowned the land as the early solar system began to settle. Earth’s smaller cousin Orpheus also evolved life, but their orbits were too close, and they smashed into one another, eradicating life and creating a molten ball of fractured mantle and gas. The Earth settled, and the debris around it coalesced into the Moon, and so the only planet in the solar system with a relatively large moon came to be. As it turns out humans owe their existence to the moon. If not for Orpheus, the Earth would still be a vast ocean devoid of terrestrial life. The Moon itself stabilizes Earth’s orbit, seasons, and temperature. The chaotic orbit and tilt that Earth would have without its moon would make the development of intelligent life difficult to impossible as we imagine it. Overall an engaging documentary that brings into sharp relief just how precarious our existence truly is.
Hate nature?† Check out Matt’s best docs of the decade.
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