Massive projections of things have become big business in London. Overwhelmingly it’s been in the art world: numerous pop-up exhibitions have cleaned up by charging £20 plus to wander around a warehouse getting your selfie taken next to giant projected reproductions of the greatest hits of Van Gogh, or Klimt, or Kahlo, or whoever. The last year has seen the opening of Frameless, a dedicated immersive art gallery, and David Hockney’s ‘Bigger and Closer’, the first instance of a major living artist curating a projection-based exhibition of their own work.
There is, I think, a general view that this stuff is at best gimmicky. But the new BBC Earth Experience definitely has something, in large part because it’s film-based rather than painting-based.
Staged in the Daikin Centre, a building that’s popped up over the rubble of the old Earls Court Exhibition Centre, it’s an immersive experience based around the BBC’s 2019 David Attenborough magnum opus documentary series ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’.
This is the basic deal. For the most part, you’re in a massive, cathedral-sized room, too big and oddly shaped to see all of at once. The walls are all massive screens, and they’re showing a roughly 50-minute ‘film’ that takes us on a journey through the wildlife of each of the seven continents.
The footage is, naturally, stunning, and often almost overwhelming blown up to giant size: locust swarms the size of clouds, mushrooms that tower like skyscrapers, bears as big as buses. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The screens are not in sync: most of them are showing different camera angles of the same creature, or sometimes half of them move on to a new creature ahead of the other half. It’s disorienting at first, but quite exhilarating after a while - every time you turn your head there’s something new; you can see more of any given creature simply by wandering the vast space, which also incorporates a couple of nifty raised viewing platforms. Combined with pin-sharp sound design – particular stunning during depictions of wild weather – and you have something genuinely awesome.
If it was just ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ on the screen it would be pretty impressive at this scale, but that isn’t really the deal here. It’s not so much a documentary as an immersion in the raw power of some of the greatest wildlife footage in history. Attenborough’s soothing voice does occasionally drift through the speakers – essentially announcing the names of the continents and creatures – but he’s a background presence. This isn’t really about him, but the overwhelming spectacle.
The vast main area is supplemented by two much smaller side rooms. There’s a dreamy, ambient underwater-themed room with a couple of child-pleasing interactive displays. And there’s a creepy crawly room divided into two sections, within one featuring a brightly lit, elegantly choreographed series of films showing insect life at its most colourful, and then a hammed up darkened chamber showing them at their grimmest.
It’s very impressive. I was blown away at points, as were my kids. But it’s hard not to fixate on the price: £32.50 to see an hour of film is a lot, no matter how powerful it is, and while considerable investment has clearly been made in the building, it is presumably not a show with vast overheads. It’s not my place to know your household budget, but it’s important to bear in mind that the BBC Earth Experience is not cheap and sadly won’t be for everyone on that basis alone. Still, given the decades of astonishing nature documentaries Attenborough and the BBC have given us for our piddling license fee, it’s hard to actively begrudge the BBC Wildlife Experience. If you can afford it, go.