The Real World Spectacle of 'Life:' Better Than Hollywood's Wildest Fantasies?

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Back on Tuesday night, I had a surprising revelation.

Around 6 p.m. I rushed in the rain to a screening of Clash of the Titans, ready to get a face full of the Kraken (you can read my full take on the film over at Techland). But on the subway ride home – after a film that was probably about 30 minutes too long, and easily 15 minutes too short on dragon-pegasus duels – I found myself marveling at just how little awe this whole gods-vs.-humans brawl inspired. I mean, there’s a scene here where we watch about a dozen warriors take on three skyscraper-sized scorpions. And it all plays out as if they were Jason Bourne, sprinting the streets of New York City.

There was something so oddly typical about the experience.

Then I got home, to find my wife watching an episode of Life that we taped Sunday night off Discovery. We’re underwater, watching sharks weaving and diving into a pod of fish, spiraling in a bulb. It was a sight that stopped me dead in my tracks. And those high-def images suddenly had me thinking of the interview I conducted recently with a Life cameraman – a free diver who held his breath and dove below a clan of dueling humpback whales, to capture for the first time ever on film a Humpback Heat Run. If you are watching Life then you saw that sequence last Sunday.

So for a good half hour, I put off my Clash of the Titans review, and instead basked in the wonders of the ocean. Over the last few years, from Planet Earth to Life, I have been in awe of all the patient and ambitious world-class documentaries now being filmed with high-definition cameras. Producers have decided to give their filmmakers and photographers the time and resources they need to trek out to the corners of the Earth and come back with footage that is absolutely mind-blowing.

And while I love a big bad movie as much as the next guy – particularly anything that bills itself a Kraken thriller – if you want awe this weekend, just stay home with your Planet Earth box set, and your Sunday night episodes of Life. This Sunday, the focus is birds and “creatures of the deep.” For all the money Hollywood spends on getting the CGI just right, it’s these docs, and the Discovery Channel, that has the real goods.