"Life" breathes new vitality into nature series

Thu Mar 18, 2010 9:29pm EDT
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By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Eleven hours of watching birds fly, frogs leap and whales frolic might seem to be taking a viewer's curiosity about nature a bit too far, but honestly, there's never been anything like "Life." Although this Discovery miniseries is just the latest in a long line of natural-science documentaries going back to Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom," it has the ability to instantly make all others look tragically dated.

What distinguishes this BBC-Discovery co-production, which premieres Sunday (March 21) is its breathless and eye-popping photography born of patience, planning, research and the most technologically advanced HD equipment. The close-ups of animals, plants, birds, fish and insects could not have been imagined even a decade ago.

Based on Discovery's own description, there were no shortcuts. According to a news release, crews filmed more than 3,000 days over a period of four years. That works out to about nine months of constant filming for each episode. Put another way, each day's worth of shooting yielded, on average, less than 10 seconds of video.

The miniseries is from the makers of "Planet Earth," another HD marvel. That miniseries, with its explanation of the forces that shaped the planet, was more intellectually challenging than "Life." This time around, the producers are only minimally concerned with putting their subjects in a broader context; the goal is to tantalize with one curiosity after another, teasing just enough to keep interest through commercial breaks.

This is natural science presented anecdotally. Each hour consists of about 15 vignettes that spotlight curious behavior, be it monkeys who have learned to break open palm nuts with stones or the mating dance of grebes, birds that remain faithful to each other, at least for one season.

There's much in this series to suggest Darwin but even more to suggest Ripley. Most of the time, science takes a back seat to the plethora of stories about little-known but utterly fascinating animal behavior.

Perhaps the most important theme that runs through each episode is the extent to which plants and animals have changed to survive and even thrive, often in inhospitable environments. Over and over, narrator Oprah Winfrey points out the enormous and effective adaptations, piling up mountains of evidence of evolutionary change. Oddly, though, the actual word "evolution" rarely is spoken. A concession to Nielsen's creationist families, perhaps.

The first episode, "Challenges of Life," is an overview of the series, including several stories about plants and animals that will recur in the next nine shows: "Reptiles & Amphibians," "Mammals," "Fish," "Birds," "Creatures of the Deep," "Hunters and Hunted," "Insects," "Plants" and "Primates." The 11th hour is a behind-the-scenes look at how the miniseries was produced.