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Two of the great nature documentaries of the modern era used high-definition cameras, relentless patience and enormous dedication to capture an exploration of life on Earth that hasn’t since been equaled — except by their sequels.
The BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet, which focused on oceans, remain classics. In February of 2017, Planet Earth II premiered, and the results were jaw-dropping (it ended up, along with Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, in the top 10 of my Best TV of 2017). On Saturday, across five networks — BBC America, AMC, IFC, We TV and Sundance TV — Blue Planet II will present its newest underwater odyssey, and the results are equally stunning.
Basically, it’s impossible to oversell either documentary. The Planet series remain some of the very few programs that can legitimately be called “event television.” Even with so much stellar nonfiction work, particularly nature programming, available, there’s still nothing like them on television and, unfortunately, it feels like there’s always some level of heavy lifting needed to convince people to tune in.
But this isn’t “eat your vegetables” programming. Just as Planet Earth II made the stunning visuals of its predecessor from a decade earlier seem a lifetime away, so does Blue Planet II, which uses advanced technologies (not just state of the art cameras, but underwater equipment, etc.) to go even further beneath the world’s oceans. It’s a visually astonishing and riveting seven-part collection of images so surreal they almost feel like science fiction.
Hosted yet again by Sir David Attenborough, his understated yet distinct narration style has never been more spot on than when he notes, “There are creatures beyond our imagination” under his feet and under the water.
It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by the footage on display here, whether it’s cameras that are able, for the first time, to detect the faint light (which shows up blue, here) emitted by plankton, causing a mass of the tiny organisms to resemble an underwater fireworks show, or the shockingly vivid coral and fish species (in multiple colors, but boy does that red pop off the screen), and, in contrast, a pitch-black deep ocean filled with predators so creepy they will make you glad they live so far below the surface that only a specialized submersible craft can reach them.
One of the great elements of these Planet documentaries is that they make you say things that you would normally never utter, such as, “The part where the trippy sea cucumbers eat the star fish eggs needs to be rewound five times,” which is an actual note I took for Blue Planet II, while playing it over and over again, mind blown at the images, which looks like something dreamt up by Pixar.
There’s also joy in hearing Attenborough say, almost like he’s typing something on Twitter: “So, here’s a fish … that uses tools.”
That’s nothing, of course (Blue Planet II always gives you the impression that what you’re about to see next will make the previous incredible, surreal thing seem mundane); not long after the tool-using fish proves to be smarter than anyone expected, a different species leaps out of the water and eats a bird.
That’s normally done in reverse, as you’ll recall. But no, there it is, as Attenborough says, a huge trevally fish calculating the air speed, altitude and trajectory of “sooty terns” and then, accelerating like a beast, leaping out of the water and snatching and crushing said sooty tern in midair.
Have I used “mind-blowing” already? Oh.
Blue Planet II is filled with these kinds of moments. To have the cameras there, in the perfect place at the perfect time to catch such a scene, from multiple angles, is easy to take for granted. For this particular natural phenomenon, the footage, from both above and below the surface, includes a collection of spectacular near-misses, including one slow-motion scene were a tern senses he’s about to, inconceivably, be snatched out of the air and veers up just enough to save himself. It looks like a mashup of Jaws and The Endless Summer.
No footage of this hunting behavior has ever been captured before, apparently — just fisherman saying they’d seen it happen near an atoll in the Seychelles. So the Blue Planet II crew went out and, yep, got it.
Moments like that, whether captured on film for the first time ever or for the hundredth — but this time with the best cameras available, operated by the best nature photographers alive, and in the absolute right position — is a hallmark of this documentary series. Even when things aren’t as thrilling, you’ll still learn a lot about “six gill” sharks, curse the tenacity of urchins and reiterate in your mind that sea otters rule.
That said, the truly spectacular elements in Blue Planet II can’t be described in print with any justice. You just have to watch it unfold and be a little grateful that the BBC spent four years in production on this (125 expeditions, 39 countries, 6,000 hours diving on every continent and every ocean).
Something like this doesn’t happen overnight or come around very often. This is television as an educating device for the globe.