“David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet” (2020) Review

Dirs. Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes, Keith Scholey; David Attenborough

[4 out of 4 stars]

David Attenborough has long been an international treasure. As the de facto voice, both literally as a narrator and figuratively due to his stature, of the contemporary study of our natural world, he holds that rare status as a scientific mind that has eclipsed academics to become a pop culture icon. His work on iconic BBC series — such as Wildlife on One (1977-2005), The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006) — means that his voice, face, and demeanor have solidified as inseparable from nature documentaries, and so his mild-mannered British accent is the baseline for how we imagine those pieces should sound. Attenborough is now 93 years old, and after a career that has spanned more than six decades, he has seen our world, the corners both touched and untouched by human development, change, and suffering. With David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020), Attenborough offers what he calls his “witness statement” to his time on Earth, what he has seen, and how he hopes we as humans can reverse the damage we have done to this precious “blue marble” we call home. 

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet can broadly be separated into three acts, or movements as I’ll prefer to think of them since there is a musicality to their composition. The first of these is Attenborough’s “witness statement,” roughly 45 minutes long, where he walks us through, literally most of the time, the way that he has “explored the wild places of our planet.” The directors draw on footage from the seemingly endless number of television programs and documentaries Attenborough  has been a part of, augmented with new nature footage in line with the best of any previous nature documentary he has worked on. This movement is defined by joy and wonder, the discoveries he made in our world from his boyhood to his old age. The second movement is much darker. It is a stark exploration of the ways in which humanity has destroyed the Earth, turning it “from wild to tame” at nearly every turn. It is here that he dutifully and earnestly lays bare how our actions have accelerated climate change and ravaged our natural spaces. This movement is marked by grief above all else. Yet the third movement, a short 10 minutes or so, is Attenborough’s resounding cry for change where he addresses the potentials for change that we must embrace to reverse what we have done. As he so directly puts it, the world will recover from us once we are gone, so this is about “saving humanity.”

Watching each movement of David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, I was entranced. Crisp footage of whales leaping, hummingbirds framed against the setting sun, and wildebeests rushing through the mist tends to have that effect on most of us. But it was more than that. I have watched nearly everything Attenborough has been involved in during the last 20 years, but while his presence is constant, the man is frequently obscured in favor of  spectacular natural documentation. He sets that aside in this piece and makes himself the focus in that first movement. We see Attenborough for the first time walking through a Ukranian city that has been abandoned due to the Chernobyl meltdown. The buildings are decrepit and dusty and moldy books litter the floor, and this old man walks calmly through the wreckage in his jeans and jacket. He then addresses the camera, and that choice by Attenborough and the trio of directors, to have him speak directly to us from one of the most lasting markers of human failure, is stirring. The feeling carries on as he walks down a path from his childhood home where he first discovered fossils and, in turn, his love for studying the natural world. The movement is as biographical as it is breathtaking. It also makes one fact quite clear: Attenborough is the closest thing we have to a go-between for humans and nature. For nearly a century, this man has dedicated his life to understanding how our ecosystems interact and the dependencies that species and biomes have for one another. All the while, as he gathered this information and experience, he relayed it back to the masses. He is, in this sense, one of the longest serving public teachers we have, and that fact is what makes the second movement of this documentary so deeply unsettling. 

At periodic instances throughout the documentary, the directors insert text screens. They document a year as well as the global population, carbon levels in the atmosphere, and remaining acres of wilderness at that time. The first one comes to mark 1937, when Attenborough was a young boy. The reality of these inserts is the story of a world that has become overpopulated, carbon suffused, and markedly less wild and natural. They stood out to me because Attenborough’s narrative style is generally anecdotal, but these inserts link his words to the numbers and statistics that inform the changes he focuses on in the second movement specifically. When Attenborough turns to address these facts, he does so both in broad strokes pertaining to the global implications, and in the form of stories that he has already referenced in the first movement. In one, he recounts how the rainforests of Borneo have been cut down by more than 50% during his lifetime, resulting in the decimation of orangutan populations and countless other species that depend upon the biome. His words are augmented by heartbreaking footage of lonely orangutans wandering through fields that used to be their forested home and clips of chainsaws ripping into trees. This is the mood, both in Attenborough’s narration and the filmmaking, that permeates these next 40 minutes. Attenborough and the filmmakers systematically walk us through the ways that farming, population growth, deforestation, and overfishing have wreaked havoc on our planet. If the musicality of the first movement is defined by elegance and beauty, this movement is a dirge, one loaded with dark cadences. It is difficult to watch, yet should be required viewing for anyone who wishes to better educate themselves on the climate crisis, or who needs to be persuaded that it is as pressing and real an issue as this documentary lays it out to be. 

And so, with a knot the size of the increasingly shrinking arctic ice sheets in my stomach, I watched the last 15 minutes of David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet as our narrator and directors unleash a call for action as effective as any I have ever seen. Together they make it quite simple, showing the decade by decade ramifications of extreme weather and mass extinction that will unfold unless we step up together as a species. Attenborough supplies hope by highlighting the success stories of communities and countries that have reversed the effects of coral bleaching and over fishing and repeatedly notes “imagine if we could accomplish this on a global scale.” Here is a man who has seen more of the world and the ways that it has changed than arguably anyone else alive, and he is terrified for the future, but he has not given up. This documentary therefore ends with a resounding invocation to do better, to commit as a human race to fix our mistakes. 

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is gorgeous filmmaking, as one would expect from a team that has delivered pristine nature footage for decades both with and without Attenborough, but by stepping beyond that expectation to motivate viewers to consider what happens if those animals and places disappear is a masterstroke. This is filmmaking steeped in the urgent drive of its nonagenarian narrator, his subject, and his driving force. As he puts it late in the documentary, “I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle. Because I wish the struggle wasn’t there or necessary. But I’ve had unbelievable luck and good fortune. Um, and I certainly would feel very guilty… if I saw what the problems are and decided to ignore them.” David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet simply asks us not to ignore the struggle, because our lives and our world truly depend upon it.

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