In 2007, Discovery aired the documentary series Planet Earth, which wowed critics, drew huge ratings and showed a nation of consumers what those new big-screen TVs were really for. An expansive nature documentary full of luscious, hard-to-get HD visuals, it combined a vaguely environmentalist vibe (illustrating the interconnectedness of life on the planet) with a vaguely consumerist appeal (giving people hours of eye candy that played well on the huge-canvas HDTVs filling American living rooms).
But what do you do for a sequel? The solar system being what it is, there aren’t other life-bearing planets you can move on to. The answer, as shown by the equally impressive follow-up Life, debuting Sunday night on Discovery Channel, is to switch up the taxonomy and the perspective.
Truth be told, the eleven episodes of Life—coproduced with the BBC and narrated by Oprah Winfrey—are essentially just eleven more episodes of Planet Earth. And as the Tuned In Jrs. can attest, transfixed by some of the early screeners of the series, there is nothing wrong with that. The overarching difference is that where Planet Earth roughly organized itself geographically (the deep seas, the deserts, the mountains), Life arranges itself by biological classification (mammals, fish, plants, etc.).
The other, less immediately apparent difference, is perspective and scale: where Planet Earth impressed with its global sweep and God’s eye view, the scenes I take away from Life (at least the episodes I’ve watched so far), are more close-up and intimate. Often very close-up, as in the above video, where you almost literally play fly-on-the-wall to a fly—specifically, a stalk-eyed fly, seen here inflating its eye stalks after emerging from its pupa. Another scene takes you inside the crown of a bromeliad plant, high above a jungle floor, where a frog tadpole lives in a tiny cup of water until maturity.
The first amazing thing is that you’re watching at all—how the hell, you wonder time and again in Life, did they get cameras so close, in such a small space, while staying unobtrusive? The second amazing thing is that, for the most part, these technical wonders fall into the background as you watch, and this intimate extreme close-up seems the most natural thing in the world.
(One quibble: nothing against Oprah, but I’d rather Discovery went with a less famous narrator than the TV star they’re creating a TV network with. Her voice is simply so recognizable that sometimes I found it knocking me out of the moment: I want to think, “Oh, there’s a Komodo dragon hunting a water buffalo,” not, “Oh, there’s Oprah Winfrey telling me about a Komodo dragon hunting a water buffalo.”)
Experiencing Life is less like watching a documentary than taking a virtual fantastic voyage, one that seems to make the camera-lens barrier between you and nature vanish. It’s an intimate spectacle that proves those big-screen TVs are sometimes most impressive when they show us the tiniest moments.