Back in the day, your typical primetime natural history programme would be shot through with awe and wonder. Sloths! Pangolins! Vast expanses of ice! Alien phenomena you’d never dream of seeing IRL, filmed up close and introduced, more often than not, in Sir David Attenborough’s comforting tones.
Then, led by growing public awareness, the warnings started creeping in. For decades, documentary-makers were afraid to put off viewers with excess finger-wagging. Blue Planet changed all that. When the BBC dedicated serious, heart-rending airtime to that turtle trapped in a plastic bag, it set a new bar for wildlife programming. Humans had to be told: yes, the natural world is beautiful, but actually, we’re all complicit in its destruction.
In David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, our host, now 94, takes this sense of discomfort to its logical extreme. He whisks us through his career, from the 1950s to the present day, and shows us how meticulously we have devastated the planet over the same period.
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of arresting imagery, drawn largely from his other programmes, but the camera never lingers. Few shots last longer than ten seconds, and the effect is one of reminding us that this, right here, is all the dazzling richness we currently stand to lose.
Attenborough throws out terrifying stat after terrifying stat: on overfishing, the shrinking ice caps and the felling of trillions of trees. In the next lifetime, he says, the whole living world could collapse. There are animated projections of what Earth might look like over the coming century, and yup, you guessed it: things are going to get bleak.
Last year’s big-budget Our Planet series for Netflix made similar points and was elegantly shot, but the sequences felt a little disjointed. Here Attenborough distils that same urgency into a compelling, 90-minute call to arms. And in a more upbeat final section, he even offers solutions.
In Costa Rica, grants to replant native trees have doubled rainforest coverage. Palau’s no fish zones, meanwhile, have allowed reefs and sea life to thrive again (and benefitted fishermen in neighbouring areas to boot). Adopt these sorts of initiatives on a global scale, says Attenborough, and we could reverse the planet’s decline.
It’s all pithily put, and especially convincing when it comes booming out from such an authority. But will this ‘witness statement’ move the public in the same way that a floundering reptile could? Frankly, we’re going to have to really hope so.
In cinemas globally on Mon Sep 28.