On the surface, the ultra high-definition images of the exotic creatures in Planet Earth II can seem almost pornographic. Here are intimate encounters with nature, accessible to all with the click of a button, but curated and stylized to show only the most tantalizing views. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and the intense gaze of the camera exalt the animals like movie stars. And as with our relationships to celebrities, it is easy to forget one animal when a more interesting creature pops on screen.
Premiering in the United States on Jan. 28 on BBC America, “Planet Earth II” is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who guides usthrough the six-part series focused on ecosystems throughout the world. The meticulously captured videos build on the legacy of the original “Planet Earth” (2006),evoking a sublime sense of wonder. In each hour-long episode, the viewer is catapulted from location to location for glimpses into the lives of creatures searching for food, safety or a mate. A glass frog protecting his developing eggs from vicious wasps offers a chance to experience the mystical beauty of survival in the jungle. This and other opportunities to empathize with the plight of non-human animals is the highlight of the series.
One gut-wrenching sequence shows crabs on Christmas Island being blinded by acid from invasive “yellow crazy ants,” which were, ironically, introduced by eco-tourism to the island. But that feeling of loss and guilt is quickly overcome as the series pivots to present the partnership of two chin-strapped penguins, who take turns on a daring commute across Zavodovski Island to bring fish back to their children while stepping past the dead bodies of their unsuccessful neighbors. The weakness of the series is that each emotionally gripping sequence is shortly followed by an equally moving portrait of another animal. It is so easy to get lost in the imagery of “Planet Earth II” that it can become, in the words of Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’,” “escapism to help us endure the emptiness” of our own lack of connection with the natural world.
The “Cities” episode gives the best examples of the gritty connection between humans and other animals. It offers surprisingly hopeful suggestions for creating symbiotic spaces for our species and the rest of the natural world. Current examples include a vertical forest in Milan, groves of metal “super trees” in Singapore and the practices of local butchers of Harar, Ethiopia, who have been feeding bones scraps to spotted hyenas for centuries.
In the brief “Diaries” sequence at the end of each episode, members of the production crew speak about their own sense of wonder as well as the challenges of filming. Yet in the context of the series, this social commentary, which asks the viewer to reflect on and improve our connection to nature, seems like an afterthought to the extreme attention paid to visual storytelling.
Raw reflections on our connections to the natural world are relegated to YouTubeclips that accompany the series. Ruth Peacey, a BBC producer, who travels to the jungles of West Papua to film red birds-of-paradise, mentions growing up as a birder and learning about British birds from her father and she begins to cry as she tries to convey the gravity of the project. Clearly her personal experiences prepared her to have an intimate and moving encounter with birds in real life. Edited clips and privileged camera angles in “Planet Earth II” cannot replace individual conviction in the sanctity of the natural world.
Any sense of connection gained by watching these amazing creatures up close will be fleeting if our hearts are not open to finding and uncovering God in the ecosystems of our local communities. I will not be traveling to see the crabs on Christmas Island anytime soon. But can I instead commiserate with the rats trying to make a home in my apartment walls to escape the Chicago winters?
The stunning images and stories of “Planet Earth II”are not enough to give us, again in the words of “Laudato Si’,” a “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” In the end, we are left with the task to extend that sense of wonder beyond the screen and into the world around us.