A decade ago when Planet Earth hit television screens in the United States, it was nothing short of a revolution in nature documentary filmmaking — a breathtaking, high-definition work, a magisterial moment that had people slack-jawed while learning about life across the world. On Saturday, BBC America (and simulcast on AMC and Sundance that night only) brings back to the U.S. the long-awaited Planet Earth II, this time shot in Ultra-HD. Not surprisingly, the series is absolutely stunning.
Having already aired in the U.K. to rave reviews, Planet Earth II can now mesmerize Americans with the technological advances that allow never-before-seen intimacy and spectacular aerial photography — the latter includes not just birds-eye and drone-style shots but gliding through jungle tree-tops, following animals with a closeness and deftness that is often hard to fathom. It would be a disservice not to watch and record these six hours for posterity (or, as many did 10 years ago, buy the DVD collection as a must-have for the shelves).
Yes, it's that kind of magnificent.
Shot over three years in 40 different countries, Planet Earth II is narrated by David Attenborough and broken into six distinct parts that provide each episode with its title: Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands and Cities.
Given that the worldwide spectrum here is enormous and that the final chapter, Cities, kicks off with nothing short of a mind-blowing daytime rooftop battle between Langur monkeys in Jodhpur, India, the only very slight critique might have been the sequence of the episodes. Specifically, the first hour — Islands — is noticeably slower and less involving than the riveting second hour, Mountains, and flipping their order would have been smart. But that's hardly a deal-killer when the least of Planet Earth II's spellbinding wonder still leaves you shaking your head at what you just witnessed.
(The making-of hour that the BBC provides only makes the feats witnessed prior that much more eye-popping. The dangers that a para-glider went through for a "birds-eye view" sequence, for example, make you grip the couch. Exactly how the intrepid camera operators got these sublime shots should be an even longer and separate documentary.)
There are, of course, too many scenes of beauty and daring to illuminate — from super-close views of snow leopards and Langur monkey faces to sunrises, cityscapes, avalanches, breathless aerials and slow-motion captures; from tiny bugs to grizzly bears hilariously scratching their backs on trees.
The breadth here is amazing and it's hard to fathom the amount of editing that went into the project, much less the number of dedicated individuals who risked their lives to film it. Attenborough's legendary delivery adds to the overall effectiveness, naturally, with his easy wit and dry observations making the whole thing seem like the couch-trip of the century.
Islands might have been the first episode because the producers probably knew the footage of racer snakes chasing down marine iguanas was going to break the internet. But honestly, there's equally great and some might argue even more mesmerizing footage in pretty much every episode. A few standouts from each:
Islands: The 1.5 million "chinstrap penguins" on the extremely remote Zavodovski Island in the Antarctic; the treacherous Komodo Dragons of Indonesia.
Mountains: The Ibex wild goats of the Arabian Peninsula, grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada, snow leopards of the Himalayas and pretty much every mountain shown here (especially Mount Everest, even if you've seen footage a million times).
Jungles: Spider monkeys in Guatemala, jaguars of Brazil and how special cameras caught the glowing or "bioluminescent fungi," also in Brazil.
Deserts: A locust swarm of several billion (reportedly one of the largest ever caught on camera) and, holy hell, bats vs. scorpions!
Grasslands: An epic battle of buffalos vs. lions, and if you think this is a mismatch, well, it's not; weird Saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan (again, almost never seen on film); plus ants and, yes, "bee-eaters."
Cities: The aforementioned Langur monkeys leaping rooftops in India and the absolutely unreal sight of leopards roaming Mumbai at night (captured with infrared and thermal cameras — the proximity to people walking around unaware is mind-blowing); and never-before seen footage of peregrine falcons hunting in New York City (it took nine months to get permission to shoot from skyscrapers and with helicopters).
Obviously, untold hours over three years from all around the globe were put in to get this documentary made. As viewers, we're so overwhelmed with options in the Platinum Age of television that yet another slice of brilliance might not get our attention or snap us awake to take notice. That's understandable — it's what us television critics drone on about all the time.
But understand this — Planet Earth II is on another level. The BBC Natural History Unit has really outdone itself. This documentary is a truly sublime accomplishment, an epic achievement that everyone should watch.
Directed by: Justin Anderson, Ed Charles, Elizabeth White, Emma Napper, Fredi Devas, Chadden Hunter
Host and narrator: David Attenborough
Premieres Saturday, Feb. 18, at 9 p.m. on BBC America, AMC and Sundance; then airs only on BBC America, Saturdays at 9 p.m.