Following the life of our greatest British broadcaster creates a global tale of natural devastation, in the most essential and hopeful documentary of the 21st century.
Right from the opening shot, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020) is a completely different kind of nature documentary than any you’ve seen before.
Throughout Sir David Attenborough's vast filmography, most of his documentaries begin with a gorgeous aerial shot, propelling us over a sweeping tropical vista, while Sir David's instantly recognisable voice promises us we're about to witness the beauty of the natural world.
In A Life on Our Planet, however, he has a very different message for all of us. “Well,” he says, midway through the film, “we’ve destroyed it, we’ve not just ruined it; we’ve destroyed that world.
“That non-human world is gone.”
This film commences with stark footage of concrete ruins; an abandoned tower block topped with a rusty hammer and sickle. After following Attenborough through his somber exploration of dystopian former classrooms, former houses, and empty nurseries, we learn that what we’re looking at is the remnants of Chernobyl, decades after the infamous nuclear plant explosion in 1986.
Such an unexpected introduction is a product of the film’s unique concept. As the title suggests, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet has a far more personal, biographical focus than other titles in the genre. At its heart, this is the story of one man’s lifetime. It charts Attenborough’s entire journey, from his childhood days spent wandering in the woodlands, through his decades of pioneering exploration work with the BBC, all the way up to his present-day 93-year-old self.
This feat of technical ingenuity creates some incredibly tender, moving moments throughout the documentary
It’s an intimate voyage through the mind of a man whose entire life has been spent marvelling at the splendour of nature. Through the film’s uniquely conversational style, we are drawn to view the world through Attenborough’s eyes, to see exotic creatures with the same awe and humility as he does, and to appreciate the power and beauty of every ecosystem on our planet.
In order to achieve this conversational tone, director Jonnie Hughes requested an ingenious work of engineering from his camera crew: he asked them to install a one-way mirror directly into the camera. That way, Hughes’ face was visible in the lens, and so instead of talking to a blank rectangle, Sir David was talking directly to an audience who was really present at the time. This feat of technical ingenuity creates some incredibly tender, moving moments throughout the documentary, especially in its latter half, as his emotional reactions feel real and unrehearsed.
And how overwhelming those emotions must be: after 93 years on planet Earth, having spent most of that time within the most remote and exciting corners of the natural world, Attenborough has actually been present to witness the human race’s destruction of our own planet. He calls this film his “witness statement” to humanity’s momentous abuses of our planet, and since the changes he describes within the film have all occurred over the course of his own lifetime, there is perhaps nobody else on the planet who feels this loss more than Attenborough himself.
That’s the brilliance of David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’s central concept: the global, epic narrative of catastrophic climate change is told in a personal, human way, by a man who’s lived it. What always seems like such an incomprehensible notion, that humans could be causing a sixth mass extinction event by heating the planet we live on to unsurvivable temperatures, becomes suddenly all too real.
But in the hands of Attenborough’s excellent crew [...] even the large-scale stories feel personal.
Despite its focus on the titular Attenborough, however, the film spends plenty of time explaining our planet’s history on a macro scale. It takes us from the age of the dinosaurs right through to the Apollo 8 space flight. Each segment gives a fresh new perspective to what we’ve seen before, and what will come after.
In the hands of lesser filmmakers, these jumps from intimate to expansive stories could come across as jarring shifts of focus. But in the hands of Attenborough’s excellent crew, most of whom have worked on his other award-winning documentaries like the ‘Blue Planet’ series, even the large-scale stories feel personal.
It’s not an easy documentary to watch. You’ll be confronted with the terrifying reality that, as Attenborough says, “Human beings have overrun the world,” and there are some truly shocking predictions made in Attenborough’s preview of our next 93 years, if we continue on the course we’re currently taking.
And yet, I’m still calling this the most hopeful documentary of the 21st century.
I’m calling it that because, after all those apocalyptic revelations, the film leaves half an hour at the end to demonstrate to everyone how simply we can solve this problem. It’s merely a case of “Rewilding the world.”
Attenborough’s other documentaries, including his recent Extinction: The Facts, rarely have enough time to truly offer detailed solutions to climate change. In A Life on Our Planet, though, the final sequences are not only informative, full of real-life sustainable success stories, they also show that the tragedy of climate change is something we can reverse within our own lifetimes, while improving our access to education, nature, clean air, and even cheap electricity on the way.
This film has arrived at the perfect time. We can reverse the greatest crisis of our time if we simply listen to what it has to say, and fight for its advice to be listened to around the world.
For all of the above reasons, this documentary is essential viewing for everyone in the 21st century living a life on our planet.
Featured Image: IMDb