As a marine iguana hatchling emerges from the multicolored pebbles, Planet Earth II stirs to life. Here, in the Galápagos, the BBC docuseries—a sequel to the popular Planet Earth (2006)—constructs its most absorbing sequence, the newborn lizard’s much-discussed escape from a nest of deadly racer snakes, nightmarish in their collective coiling. I use “constructs” advisedly: The chase unspools to the urgent rhythms of action-adventure, the predators slithering from shady crevices as their prey scuttles toward the sea; one ground-level image, of another iguana set upon by snakes, even suggests our protagonist’s point of view. Designed down to the tiniest movement, Planet Earth II is not, then, an “objective” glimpse of the wild, even as motion-sensor cameras and telephoto lenses allow the filmmakers to capture such remarkable footage at further and further removes. It is, rather, a ravishing, chastening dispatch from a disappearing world, as if to generate a record of what we’ve already lost.
I use “already” advisedly, too: The science of greenhouse gases and their effect on climate is clear, and the challenge now is not simply to reduce or cease emissions—it’s to minimize the damage our prior actions are destined to cause. (As NASA’s Earth Observatory explained in 2007, not long after the debut of the first Planet Earth, the lag between levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperatures, known as “thermal inertia,” means that the mercury will continue to rise for decades even if we impose radical limits on emissions now: “If we wait until we feel the amount or impact of global warming has reached an intolerable level,” the warning went, “we will not be able to ‘hold the line.’”) It’s in this context that Planet Earth II operates, and as such it seems a more fraught endeavor than the original, out of step, perhaps, with the march of time. Is it enough, in what David Attenborough’s regal narration describes as a “crucial” moment for the planet, to reserve our sense of danger for the dance between predator and prey?
As Colin Dickey writes in The New Republic, the aestheticization of nature in Planet Earth II is not without consequence. The series treats the near-absence of humans from its images as a neutral position, though of course the observer’s influence is omnipresent: The bears scratching their backs against tree trunks in the second episode, “Mountains,” may not be aware of the camera, but the foot-tapping score that accompanies the scene, run through with anthropomorphic glee, is a reminder of the distance from planet Earth to Planet Earth. The series’ crystalline colors and infinitesimal details—the blood-flecked spittle hanging from a Komodo dragon’s mouth; a jungle frog’s fight to protect his tadpoles from a wasp—frame these passages as the immediate experience, and yet their drama derives from the human touch. Planet Earth II promises a portrait of the natural world, but the spectacle it delivers is man-made.
If the courtship rites of pink flamingoes “on parade” suggest the humor of a Pixar feature, or the brawl between two raptors recalls the lavish set pieces of one or another fantasy epic, the fact remains that Planet Earth II, despite Dickey’s criticism, amplifies and arranges its magisterial treatment of rare flora and fauna to draw two salient points: First, that humans’ destructive practices reach places still largely untouched by development; and second, that ecosystems, stretched and stressed across the incomprehensible lengths of evolutionary time, are more resilient than we are. Rather than read the series as an inadvertent elision of our role in the ruination of the environment, one might see it instead as a reminder that the species least prepared to adapt to change is our own. This isn’t to suggest that Planet Earth II ignores the impact of humans—our introduction of the invasive yellow crazy ant to the habitat of tomato-red crabs; our encroachment on Alpine summits and responsibility for glaciers’ retreat—but to admit that even “the world’s top predator” has sat atop nature’s hierarchy for a mere 6,000 years, a planetary blink of the eye.
As in the time-lapse images of humans from the series’ sixth episode, “Cities,” which render us as insects in sprawling hives, or the acknowledgement that monkeys in Jaipur and falcons in New York continue to carve new niches in Homo sapiens’ terrain, the relative absence of people from Planet Earth II comes to seem a premonition rather than an omission, reminiscent of speculative fiction’s abandoned landscapes. Indeed, the way in which the series sculpts its astonishing action from nature’s raw materials reflects the desire to document our mode of understanding the planet as much as it does the desire to document the planet itself. When I call Planet Earth II a “dispatch from a disappearing world,” I do so advisedly: Akin to the golden records sent into space on the Voyager in 1977, the series strikes me, in its foreboding beauty, as a way to pin in place the human moment, and to capture something of what we saw before it passes. What threatens to disappear in Planet Earth II are not islands, nor mountains, nor jungles, which predate history and will surely outlast it. The ghost on its margins is us.
Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. on BBC America.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.