You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A View to a Kill

By focusing on high-definition thrills, nature documentaries obscure more than they reveal.


What is a lemming, exactly? Most of us, I’m guessing, could name few of its basic biological attributes. (It’s a rodent weighing one to four ounces and measuring three to six inches in length that lives in the Arctic.) The primary thing we think we know about lemmings—that they throw themselves off cliffs in inexplicable mass suicides—is actually false. This myth originally arose as a folk explanation for the wide variances in lemming populations from year to year, and was cemented by White Wilderness, a nature film produced by Walt Disney that won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1958. In one sequence, lemmings are shown leaping off a cliff into the Arctic Ocean, destined to drown. “They’ve become victims of an obsession,” intones the narrator. In reality, the lemmings were flown to Alberta by the film’s producers and herded off the cliff.

The popular conception of a lemming blindly rushing to its death does a poor job of describing the animal’s nature, but an excellent job of describing human nature—lemmings has entered the vernacular to denote any group of unthinking followers hastening their own demise. To paraphrase Voltaire’s chestnut on God, since no animal that regularly commits mass suicide exists, it was necessary to invent one. We turn to nature documentaries not to understand nature, but to see our own behavior reflected back at us. The natural world—wild, chaotic, mutable—can be endlessly recut to tell whatever story we need to tell ourselves.

Last November, two days after the election, Ellen DeGeneres played a clip for her viewers that had recently gone viral on the internet: A group of baby marine iguanas in the Galápagos make their way from the sand to the safety of the rocks, but are suddenly beset on all sides by racer snakes. As the iguanas are picked off and devoured, one sprints for cover, only to run into an ambush. Then, just as a snake coils around its body, the iguana miraculously breaks free, squirming out of the death grip. After a series of fantastic leaps, still dodging a tangle of snakes, the iguana finally makes it to safety.

“He made it!” DeGeneres exulted. “That little baby iguana got away!” The audience cheered. Then DeGeneres made the moral of the story explicit for her viewers, who found themselves living, suddenly, in Donald Trump’s America. “And that’s what we’re gonna do,” she assured everyone. “No matter what your snake is, there is hope for your little iguana.”

The clip was part of a promotion for Planet Earth II, which has its U.S. premiere this month on BBC America. It’s the much-anticipated sequel to Planet Earth, the groundbreaking BBC documentary from 2006 whose calming narration by David Attenborough and vivid, high-definition sequences of migrating birds, shark attacks, swimming elephants, bat-catching snakes, and polar bear hunts became a favorite of stoners everywhere. Five years in the making, Planet Earth was produced and released before climate change became Oscar-winning entertainment. The sequel, by contrast, was prepared after David Cameron rode to victory as prime minister in part by arguing that global warming is “one of the biggest threats facing the world.” Planned for release ten years after the original series, Planet Earth II was supposed to arrive, triumphant, as a rising tide against the rising tides of climate change.

Instead, the nature documentary is being released at a moment when the future of nature itself seems unbearably bleak. Had Brexit been defeated last summer, and had Hillary Clinton been elected in November, Attenborough’s soothing voice would have joined an empowered chorus of sane environmental stewards, reminding us of our shared accomplishments and shared commitments. Instead, one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s first post-Brexit acts was to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and Donald Trump named a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Attenborough’s voice now no longer soothes, but rather intones from the wilderness as an admonishing Cassandra.

“Our planet is still full of wonders,” Attenborough recites in the closing to the original series. “As we explore them, so we gain not only understanding, but power. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.” Unfortunately, Planet Earth II offers no such choice. Instead, the documentary’s emphasis on advances in film technology inadvertently reinforces the rhetoric of climate change deniers: that nature is immutable, that what we see is what we get. It brings the natural world into brilliant focus but leaves the biggest threat to that world—homo sapiens—out of the picture almost entirely. The stories it tells are ancient and unbroken; nature is portrayed in conflict only with itself. The most dangerous and destructive animal on the planet is left, for the most part, unseen and undisturbed, content to glide silently over the landscape, entertained by our god’s-eye view.

The moving image itself was born from our need to document nature—to see, at last, the invisible world all around us. When Eadweard Muybridge stumbled into creating the motion picture in 1878, he was trying to settle a bet about an animal: Does a horse gallop with all four feet off the ground? To answer the question, Muybridge devised his series of successive cameras, each attached to a trip wire. He captured a flip-book of motion that saw the previously unseeable: a horse in mid-air, all four legs hovering above the ground.

It didn’t take long for this new art form to stumble upon another truth: When it comes to attracting viewers, nature itself isn’t enough. In 1926, William Douglas Burden traveled to the island of Komodo to document a newly discovered giant reptile. The documentary he produced, featuring some of the first images of the Komodo dragon, failed to secure distribution because, in the words of one producer, it was “without sufficient dramatic or adventure interest.” A few years later, Burden’s friend—the aviator, explorer, and director Merian Cooper—fictionalized his story, this time with an ape instead of a lizard. The result, King Kong, offered stark proof that animal fiction is often better entertainment than animal fact.

Since Burden’s failure, nature documentarians have more or less stuck to three tried-and-true tactics. First, they cut the boring parts: Rarely does one see an animal sitting or sleeping, though this is how many animals spend most of their time. Instead, creatures in the wild are filmed hunting or being hunted, playing or being played. Wild Kingdom, Mutual of Omaha’s wildly successful TV series that premiered in 1963 and ran for 25 years, showcased breathtaking chases and exotic animals engaged in life-or-death struggles. (The show’s sponsor, a life insurance company, may have had a perverse incentive in featuring these memento mori of the animal world.)

The second tactic nature documentarians employ is to use animals as metaphors for human behavior. In Disney’s True-Life Adventure documentaries, produced between 1948 and 1960, nature is unthreatening and often silly: a woodcock dances to a samba in Nature’s Half Acre, seal cows come ashore in Seal Island to strains of “Here Comes the Bride.” (This is the same series in which the lemmings took their awkward, semi-comical dives.) Other filmmakers turned to the natural world for more overt political commentary. The World War II–era film High Over the Borders used migratory bird patterns to forge a sense of international unity in the Western hemisphere. Nazi Germany, meanwhile, depicted insects for propaganda purposes in The Bee Colony, in which the narrator employs military jargon while highlighting the importance of every worker doing its allotted role without question or dissent. Conversely, the 1950s American TV show Adventure aligned bees with communism: According to the film’s narration, the footage was actually produced by Russian scientists, because when “Russian scientists think of bees, they think of themselves.” In 2005, when March of the Penguins became the second-highest-grossing documentary in history, conservative viewers saw the tale of monogamous, family-oriented emperor penguins shielding their young against harsh Antarctic blasts as a thrilling vindication of the Christian right in the natural world. (Emperor penguins, in fact, are only monogamous for a season, and sometimes kidnap the eggs of others.)

The third tactic of nature documentaries, beginning in the 1960s, was overtly political: As the natural world depicted on-screen became increasingly threatened, the documentary became a tool of the environmental movement, a means to focus on the importance of human stewardship. The diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau became the face of that stewardship for nearly three decades with shows like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which brought viewers face to face with seldom-seen creatures like octopuses, sharks, and whales, as well as the pollution that threatened their habitat.

A cameraman with a gyro-stabilized rig films a swarm of locusts in Madagascar. Despite its advanced technology, Planet Earth II feels frozen in time.
Ed Charles, courtesy of BBC America

The success of the original Planet Earth stemmed from its ability to synthesize all three of these strands into one seamless product. Produced by the BBC’s Natural History Unit—it was the most expensive nature documentary ever made, at $25 million, and the first to be filmed in high-definition—the series combined entertaining animals, thinly veiled metaphors for human behavior, and a gentle environmental theme. The original eleven episodes aired in 2006 in two parts: five in the spring (“From Pole to Pole,” “Mountains,” “Freshwater,” “Caves,” “Deserts”) and another six in the fall (“Ice Worlds,” “Great Plains,” “Jungles,” “Shallow Seas,” “Seasonal Forests,” “Ocean Deep”).

In between these two halves, however, the entire landscape of environmental documentaries changed dramatically. In the summer of 2006, An Inconvenient Truth was released in theaters and went on to become one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time, and won the Academy Award that year. Focusing not on visual beauty but on a wonky, Al Gore–hosted slideshow—its most dramatic flourish was the use of a cherry picker to point out the dramatic rise in CO2 emissions—it ushered in a new age of uncompromisingly didactic nature documentaries: Gasland, Blackfish, The Cove, Chasing Ice. These films focused not just on the natural world but on the direct consequences of human action on that world, offering stark depictions of animal cruelty, habitat destruction, and ecological disaster. It was too late for Planet Earth to respond, but a year later, footage from the series was recut for the feature-length documentary Earth, which offered a more environmentalist agenda than that of the original series—and ended up grossing almost twice as much as An Inconvenient Truth.

The years since have only brought more dread and uncertainty about the environment—yet Planet Earth II seems strangely frozen in time. The series is almost entirely free of an environmental perspective, failing to inform its audience that many of its showcased species are threatened or endangered. The first episode opens with the charismatic and languid pygmy three-toed sloth; we are told that it lives on the Isla Escudo off the coast of Panama, but not that it’s critically endangered due to tourism. About the snake-evading baby iguanas, Attenborough tells us that “when the hatchlings emerge, they’re vulnerable,” without mentioning that the species as a whole is also classified as “vulnerable”—nor that their antagonists, the Galápagos racer snakes, are even more threatened, considered “endangered” by the Galápagos Conservation Trust. To Ellen DeGeneres and her audience, the baby iguanas may seem like innocent victims, but it is the vilified snakes whose survival is more at risk.

It’s difficult to feel too deeply for the iguanas, however, for as soon as they have scampered to safety, Planet Earth II moves on to the next impossibly lush and exotic location. By switching rapidly from scene to scene, the series obscures the individual life cycles of the creatures it showcases; they become nothing more than passive participants in larger geographical concerns: islands, mountains, rivers. Attenborough’s narration itself is minimal and riven with clichés—the Komodo dragon’s teeth, we’re told, are “sharp as steak knives.” The series can be watched without sound to little detriment.

The episodes specialize in depicting the extreme lengths to which many animals must go to acquire food or to keep from becoming food: hunting prey up vertical cliffs, migrating over Himalayan peaks, running for their lives. Sometimes the camera sides with the predator, sometimes with the prey, but it always sides with the desperate. The net effect is to present a natural landscape in which individuals are under constant threat, but the ecosystem as a whole is stable. Animals are in danger, but not endangered.

We never form a full picture of any of the various species on display in Planet Earth II; by the series end, the only thing we have a clear understanding of is its true star: the camera itself. Because animals inhabit a realm that is not only beyond our understanding, but beyond our perception, the series serves as a testing ground for innovative new developments in film technology. As a result, Planet Earth II comes off as the world’s most expensive film loop for selling high-definition televisions at Best Buy: The camera is dunked underwater, lashed to high-flying drones, and strapped to the DJI Ronin, a three-axis gimbal stabilizing unit that allows for long, steady tracking shots. The animals are not so much the subject of the camera as its measure.

In a sense, the Planet Earth series pulls off a marvelous trick: It allows us to see a world under almost constant threat of extinction without ham-handedly calling our attention to conservation issues. By chronicling in minute detail a world that could fall apart at the slightest disturbance, the series aims to passively foster an ethos of stewardship among its viewers without calling overt attention to it. In identifying with the baby iguanas over their snake predators, we’re relieved of any obligation to understand the greater ecological complexities of nature. In this telling, the baby iguana is not threatened by us, it is us—and, as with the iguana, our resilience ultimately overcomes all odds, fending off the dangers and horrors of the wider world. For the filmmakers, the natural world is a sublime landscape of awe and terror that offers the pure enjoyment of front-row seats to a previously unseen universe. Until the final episode, “Cities,” hardly any humans appear in the series at all, because our presence would break the spell; we might as well be witnessing some entirely alien planet.

This extreme aestheticization of nature represents a particularly dangerous stance in our present moment. Donald Trump has chosen Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt worked tirelessly to protect the oil and gas lobby, sued the EPA, and dismissed the debate over climate change as “far from settled.” Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, wants to dismantle the entire agency, along with its regulation of the fossil fuel industry. When Attenborough recorded his opening monologue for Planet Earth II, intoning that “never have those wildernesses been as fragile and as precious as they are today,” he surely had no idea how ominously his words would ring by the time the episode aired.

Nor does Attenborough seem to understand how ill-suited his chosen métier is to face these new disasters. Trump’s cabinet picks spell potential doom for any number of species, but the animals most threatened probably won’t include the charismatic creatures favored by Planet Earth. The American pika—a small cousin of the rabbit that lives high in the western mountain ranges of the United States—is one of the first animals that will likely succumb to climate change, but it has little of the grandeur of the snow leopard or the polar bear. The nature documentary has been conditioned for decades to focus on the same stock setups—the drama of migration, the thrill of the hunt—but extinction is far more difficult to photograph, requiring narratives that forgo the usual struggle of life and death for storytelling that lays bare the existential shift into nothingness.

Don’t expect this from Planet Earth II, which ends in the British version with Attenborough himself atop a London skyscraper, making the same decades-old plea for empathy with the natural world. “Looking down on this great metropolis,” he tells us, “the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world depend.” In the world of Planet Earth, do humanity and the natural world actually depend on each other? As we are largely absent from the series, it’s hard to know for sure; Attenborough relies, as always, on a belief that mere exposure will produce empathy; a risky gambit at best.

And one likely to be unsuccessful. Filmmaker and scholar Derek Bousé, who attempted to catalog the impact of wildlife films on public policy and the environment, concluded in his 2000 study, Wildlife Films, that there is a “great deal of optimistic presumption but a dearth of real evidence about the power of wildlife films to ‘save’ nature.” Indeed, he suggests, nature documentaries tend to “ratify and legitimize status quo values,” and he points out that the golden age of wildlife documentaries, from the 1960s onward, coincided with increasing rates of extinction and habitat destruction—hardly an indication of their success at fostering conservation.

The filmmakers of Planet Earth II may know this already. Perhaps they have already given up on conservation; the very name of the series sounds like a hopeful exoplanet waiting in the wings. With its emphasis on camera work over education, the series comes across more like a desperate cataloging of soon-to-be-extinct animals than a well-intentioned effort to save the vanishing world it seeks to document. What Planet Earth offers us, in the end, is less a documentary than a high-definition menagerie: a lush and stunning collection of final glimpses and last looks.