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Human Planet (Blu-ray Review)

22 Apr, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 4/26/11
BBC Video
$39.98 three-DVD set, $49.98 three-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.
Narrated by John Hurt.

Any culture you could imagine for science-fiction probably already exists on Earth. You just have to know where to look.

Human Planet, the latest natural history documentary from the BBC Earth unit, takes viewers on a global quest to discover how mankind has been able to adapt to almost every environment imaginable.

The eight-parter is very much in the vein of previous landmarks such as Planet Earth and Life (which were produced by a different filmmaking team), with beautiful photography and compelling stories.

One of the prevailing themes of Human Planet is to demonstrate man’s attempts to, if not control nature, at least influence it. Several stories focus on how man works with nature for the mutual benefit of both sides.

In Brazil, for example, fishermen and dolphins have forged an alliance. Some waters are too murky for the fishermen to see the fish, so dolphins have volunteered to swim the passages and tell the men where to cast their nets. The dolphins, in exchange, get to pick off the stragglers — a hearty meal.

In the Meghalaya region of Northeast India, local tribes have spent generations weaving tree roots across gorges to create a network of living bridges, some of which are hundreds of years old. Since they take so long to grow, whole families are devoted to completing them.

There are stories of pure adaptation, such as the Bajau of the South Pacific, who have established a life away from land, with generations wandering the seas on houseboats.

Other stories depict behaviors that might be frowned upon in a modernist culture, but Human Planet makes every effort to justify such actions by presenting them in a proper context.

In Mongolia, for example, Kazakh hunters routinely steal baby eagles from their nests and train them to hunt. Some might consider that invasive, but the hunters have great respect for their birds. And there’s just something invariably cool about the image of two hunters speeding through the barren hills on horseback with a magnificent bird-of-prey perched on their arms, ready to strike.

This segment also introduces the “eagle cam,” a shot from the point-of-view of the eagle, achieved by the radical technique of strapping a camera to the back of the bird. Sometimes the simplest solutions really are the best.

It becomes clear that the program wouldn’t have been possible without a certain level of trust and cooperation between the filmmakers and the locals.

It does make one wonder how the documentary crew became involved with the activities of its subjects. There are hints within the making-of segments that certain activities, while not staged, certainly may have been re-created. A fisherman in Cambodia, for example, is depicted crossing above the raging Mekong river on a simple cable bridge. He starts and stops his perilous trek several times as the crew tries to fix their rain-soaked cameras, all without benefit of a safety harness.

Seeing that makes you think about what might have happened had he fallen into the river. Would the crew try to rescue him? Probably. There’s another segment in which deep-sea compression divers experience the debilitating effects of the bends, and the filmmakers use their more-advanced first-aid kits to help them. Sometimes the Prime Directive is no match for basic human compassion.

This notion of man helping his fellow man, despite great divides in cultural similarity, is touched upon within the documentary itself. In the Himalayas, people live so far up on the mountains that the stronger UV light from damages their eyes at a high rate. In one of the more heartwarming bits, an eye-doctor who lends his services to the villagers restores sight to an old woman who had been blind for three years.

The overriding message of Human Planet is that humanity is a part of nature, and there’s just no way to escape that. This leads to a lengthy rumination about the degree to which our cities have tried (and failed) to take nature out of the equation. There are lengthy segments about rat infestations in New York, bed bugs in London, and gangs of monkeys in India who plan coordinated attacks on local food vendors.

We see some of the worst squalor on Earth, such as the people who have basically established villages in the landfills of Kenya and scavenge through the junk to survive. On the flip side, in the desert of Abu Dhabi, architects are building an experimental city called Masdar, a self-sustainable oasis that recycles all waste and leaves no carbon footprint.

There are so many interesting stories here that viewers might want to know more about, so it’s a little frustrating that the “Behind-the-Lens” featurettes that follow each episode only focus on one segment. A commentary track might have at least given some background detail to the lesser-profile stories.

What makes Human Planet unique is that the behind-the-scenes footage is like a ninth episode, and in some ways as compelling a story of human endurance as those presented in the documentary proper. In this case, it’s the story of man’s desire to explore, to learn and to capture these amazing images for posterity.

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