How to organize the hierarchy of voiceover masters? Does everybody look up to James Earl Jones, who himself looks up to Morgan Freeman? And does Freeman and his Voice of God look up to anyone? If so, then it is surely the Voice of Nature himself: Sir David Attenborough!
What is he saying? He is saying, as the clock starts on Blue Planet II, his just-premiered series, the latest in the blockbuster Planet Earth line, that “the oceans, seemingly limitless, invoke in us a sense of awe and wonder, and also sometimes fear.” Yes, certainly yes. The oceans Attenborough shows us, over these seven hour-long episodes, are indeed full of awe and wonder and sometimes fear, full of never-before-seen stunners both animal and geographic.
An eel dives into a toxic brine lake on the bottom of the ocean and goes into shock, twisting and untwisting itself in painful and ecstatic spasms until it finally breaks free and swims away as if nothing has happened.
A family of sperm whales goes on a commando-style squid-hunting dive hundreds of meters down while we follow along from cameras that have apparently, somehow, been stuck on to the whales. An octopus, at the moment before her consumption by a shark, manages to slip her tentacles inside its gills so that it can’t breathe and is forced to let her go, her skin (if that’s what it’s called) all the while flickering with such vivid and electric colors she would be the toast of any rave.
And more and more brain-blasting, spine-prickling images, culled from half a decade’s worth of footage taken across the world by the BBC’s crack Natural History Unit, presented for our enjoyment in short animal-based meals that rotate every five or ten minutes or so. Awe and wonder indeed. Alas.
Alas? The problem is that in Blue Planet II’s presentation, awe and wonder seem to be the only things the oceans are full of. (They certainly aren’t so full of fish any longer, as the series takes pains to make clear.) And awe and wonder get old quickly. There are so many beautiful shots and miraculous creatures you begin to crave something plain, and if you’re me, you begin to crave it quickly, about 15 or 20 minutes into any given episode. It’s like going to a museum filled almost exclusively with versions of Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog: After a while, the only wonder going is you wondering just how something so cool can be so boring.
Partly it’s that, on a closer look, the tricks turn out to be pretty cheap, ripped from blockbuster movies and used again and again. Put the creatures in slo-mo, slap on some custom-scored Hans Zimmer, add some detailed foley effects (I couldn’t help picturing the lucky person who makes the farting, whooshing noises for the dolphins), and you’re good to go. When, as in one episode here, this technique is applied to a rubber ducky, you know things have—pardon—jumped the shark. Several of the episodes, particularly the first, lapse into a kind of fish-salad, a greatest hits of the ocean, jumping around in time, place, and species so much it’s hard for the filmmakers to get anything except individual shots going, much less scenes or sense. No wonder everybody smokes weed to watch these shows—you couldn’t follow them otherwise.
The great exception is Blue Planet II’s second episode, about the depths of the oceans, which is so focused, eerie, and alien you can’t break away. Via the device of a dead whale carcass tracked as it falls from the water’s surface to its floor, you also learn something enduring: a good sense of how the depths relate to the rest of the ocean. A map of connection comes into your head and doesn’t leave.
The visual clichés are accompanied by linguistic ones. “The huntah... has become... the huntid," Attenborough intones on at least one instance. At another point, the males of a species “all have the same thing on their minds.” Worst of all, a male fish competing to mate is described as having “secured pole position.” I’ll never watch NASCAR the same way.
Then, in what feels likes a subconscious effort to mirror in language the amazement being urged upon us, Attenborough begins to drop his verbs. Creatures appear on screen and, rather than tell us in normal sentences that “these are emperor penguins,” he simply states their names, pauses for effect, and numbers their quantities. “Humpback whales... hundreds of them,” he says. “Grey reef sharks... hundreds of them.” Two minutes later: “Anchovies... millions of them.” “Spinners and blacktips... 10,000 of them.” Soon he’s doing it for islands too.
Sure, it’s a small thing, but as the series marches on and you hear it dozens of times, you begin to resent the absence of old “is” more and more. We’re all taught early on to abhor the passive voice, but what we’re now learning is that something even worse may lurk down there in the depths of the English language: a school of verbless sentences. If Attenborough were narrating the biblical creation, a shot of the sun, moon, seas would appear amid a blaze of infinite hi-def, and he would, truncating the illustrious phrase, utter a single word: “light.”
This isn't just writerly nitpicking; sometimes the words get in the way of understanding what’s going on in front of your eyes. “The tide is beginning to turn,” Sir David says, before pausing dramatically and then continuing the thought—“this could be the moment to spawn.” But, because of the profusion of clichés that have come before, and the fact that he’s talking about the ocean here, the viewer doesn’t know if, hmm, the actual tide was beginning to turn_,_ thereby prompting spawning, or if that was merely an exhausted metaphor meant to indicate that the spawning situation was starting to look more favorable. Some advice to future nature documentary producers: When describing fish, don’t use fish-related metaphors.
By the last episode, which is wholly focused on humanity’s horrifying effects on the oceans, the ultimate goal of Blue Planet II, a goal which is shared by its cousins in the _Planet Earth_s and so on, becomes clear: to build such an appreciation in us for the natural world that we’ll inspired to protect it from the death it currently faces. You sense that the creators and Attenborough see themselves on a crucial mission, an echo of which can be felt in the mild pond of moral virtue that surrounds the watching of their shows. Nothing wrong with this mission—it’s as noble as any. Still, one suspects that, called (by themselves) to speak for nature, the creators’ sense of mission overtakes any full and honest representation of what nature, or an encounter with it, is actually like.
By this I mean they need to aim for some feeling fresher and more original than awe, which feels blazingly new when one encounters it but actually isn’t. Awe is, in fact, the default emotion people who don’t normally have anything to do with nature associate with nature. The usual tone, something we slip on without thinking when the time comes and slip off just as easily. A real intimacy with nature, by contrast, would require the full gamut of emotions we recognize as part of any other sort of intimacy: awe and love, yes, but also fondness, boredom, fear, anger, and contempt. I dare say that if nature docs didn’t adopt just this one emotion, this one godlike point of view, they might actually be more effective in bringing people closer to it. For instance: Nature is sometimes incredibly dumb. Animals make mistakes all the time. Shouldn’t we also laugh at them, like we laugh at our stupid friends?
It’s not like examples of this sort of thing don’t exist. Meerkat Manor, say, offers much less on the spine-tingling scale but, in sticking around the same place and species for a long time, offers much more on the more-enduring scales of knowledge and humor. As for more negative feelings, there’s the great American writer Annie Dillard, whose work pulses with anger and horror at the natural world:
I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
I admit I will probably end up regretting all this when the inevitable ironic nature shows come out. Attenborough’s docs, for all their limits, do form the rare high-toned break from the seas of televised crap we all swim in. And perhaps there really isn’t a better way to go about getting millions of people into nature than this. But still: Planet Earth and Blue Planet are the only nature series most people watch. They matter, so getting them right matters too. In the meantime, I’m getting bored.
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