RECOMMENDED: BBC'S "PLANET EARTH II"
The landmark BBC "Planet Earth" nature documentary series premiered in the UK nearly 11 years ago, in March of 2006, to worldwide popularity and critical acclaim. Plans for a sequel were developed in 2013, and never scrapped: it just took this long to actually record it and put it together. But thankfully, the six-part follow-up "Planet Earth II" debuted on the BBC, and BBC America, this week. Just as the original series was the first-ever nature documentary made in high definition, the follow-up is now the first shot in 4K.
But it's not just the resolution that's improved for this new run of episodes. "Planet Earth II" benefits from all sorts of technological upgrades in the decade since the first series was produced. Remote recording techniques and camera stabilization have improved massively in the past decade, allowing the "Planet Earth" crew to get remarkably close to their wild subjects, and to record footage that's bright, clear and incredibly easy to track. The process turns nature into an action movie, and allows it to play out with at least the illusion that we the observers remain invisible. Finally, the development of aerial drone technology gives the new episodes an expansive aesthetic, the feeling that viewers are genuinely floating just above the surface of the Earth, choosing interesting subjects to drop in on and visit.
The seamlessness of the experience plays perfectly into the narrative format of the show itself. Through playful, dramatically-delivered narration, Sir David Attenborough turns what would otherwise just be beautiful shots of wildlife and the natural world into gripping storytelling, giving us a sense for the real journeys undertaken by these various species in the pursuit of survival.
A sneak preview uploaded by the BBC in November of last year - showing a baby marine iguana racing to the shoreline, pursued by a mob of hungry snakes - went massively viral, because it feels so innately dramatic. Hans Zimmer's crackerjack score and Attenborough's narration give you the context you need, but it's the clarity of the images, the editing and the direction that pull you in. It's unprecedented to view real animals in this way - as living out a story with a beginning, middle and end - and even if it's something of an illusion, it feels like unfiltered reality. (It's being called "the best wildlife scene ever filmed.")
The relevance of the series has also never been more pressing, and each episode ends with an update about the health of these various habitats in the intervening years. (SPOILER ALERT: Most of the news isn't so great.) But the show's never a downer; even at its lowest points, it's more about the power of the natural world to struggle and survive than its gradual demise.
Amazon and iTunes will stream the entire season of "Planet Earth II" for about $17, and both sites are making the first episode (focused on animals that live on remote islands) free to stream this week. It's essential viewing.
Title: "Planet Earth II"
Where to Watch: Amazon and iTunes
Episodes: 6 (1 available so far)
Runtime: About 50 minutes each
Genre: Nature documentary
MORE NATURE DOCUMENTARIES TO STREAM
PLANET EARTH: The original run of 11 "Planet Earth" episodes from 2006 is still available on Netflix and retain all of their original, stirring power.
VIRUNGA: This Netflix original documentary about the rangers who protect endangered African gorillas from poachers proved popular enough to inspire a follow-up, chronicling the making of the first film, and another run of Netflix original nature films.
THE BLUE PLANET: Another classic BBC documentary series, also narrated by Sir David Attenborough, this one focuses on marine life and the oceans. It will also get a follow-up series, which is currently in production by the BBC.
GREEN PORNO LIVE: An unconventional mix of nature documentary and performance art, this series finds actress Isabella Rossellini re-interpreting the mating rituals of various animals on stage.