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Life (Blu-ray Review)

23 May, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 6/1/10
BBC Video
$59.98 four-DVD set, $69.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
U.S. Version Narrated by Oprah Winfrey
U.K. Version Narrated by David Attenborough

Like its predecessor, the landmark nature documentary Planet Earth, Life dazzles with its amazing images and heartfelt stories of the natural world. Whereas Planet Earth focused on habitats, Life puts the spotlight on the creatures that live there. Each episode deals with a different type of life, such as fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, plants, etc. Following the Planet Earth model, the first episode serves as something of a highlight reel that sets the stage for what’s to come.

The visual splendor of Life is remarkable, capturing behaviors that in some cases have never been filmed before. Animals are driven by two overriding forces, to eat and to mate, which explains any number of odd evolutionary tendencies, from aggression to camouflage to ingenuity. One amazing sequence reveals in time-lapse how hundreds of starfish in the Antarctic waters slowly migrate toward a meal. Another episode focuses on how primates have adapted to using simple tools, such as pounding nuts with rocks to open them.

In presenting these stories, Life describes its subjects in analogies to human culture. The way it anthropomorphizes animal behaviors not only makes it easier for the audience to understand but also demonstrates that we aren’t that fundamentally different from them.

The home video version of Life has a behind-the-scenes featurette for every episode, plus 18 minutes of deleted scenes that demonstrate some of the harsher realities of the natural world. For all those who wondered how the producers of Planet Earth and Life pulled off some of their amazing time-lapse shots, the behind-the-scene footage on Life offers some insight. They kind of cheat.

One of the trademark shots of Life involves the camera pulling back through a forest as it grows through an entire season. How was it done? By shooting plants growing in front of a blue screen and compositing it on a background plate of the actual forest. So it’s not exactly complete natural, but it’s close enough to the spirit of the piece that we can forgive a little VFX trickery.

Unlike Planet Earth, Life has a music-only mode that turns any HDTV into a living art frame. One could pause the program at any time and the random still would look like it could be framed, sold at Crate & Barrel at a steep markup and hung on a wall.

The weak link of the program is Oprah Winfrey as the narrator for the Discovery Channel version. She actually does a fine job, and her involvement creates a connection to the audience, but anyone familiar with David Attenborough’s work on Planet Earth (and the original U.K. version of Life, which is also available on disc) will realize she doesn’t measure up. Maybe this isn’t a concern to American viewers, but anyone familiar with Attenborough will want his version of Life. As it is, he narrates the behind-the-scenes clips, and the difference is night and day.

UPDATE 6/7/10

I've now had a chance to compare three different versions of Life on Blu-ray Disc, and there are subtle differences. The primary version available at retail is the BBC Video version with the Oprah narration, but there is also BBC's U.K. version with Richard Attenborough narration, and the DiscoveryStore.com version.

The Discovery version is virtually the same as the BBC's Oprah version, but it doesn't have the tribal title sequence the BBC version has, the menus are different and, while the episode order is the same, a few episodes are on different discs than their BBC counterparts. Like the BBC version, the Discovery version offers the bonus "Making of Life" episode, deleted scenes, the original U.K. behind-the-scenes featurettes for each episode, and the music-only mode.

The Attenborough version is drastically different. Aside from the original narrator, the U.K. version has a different title sequence, different music and different menus. This version also has no deleted scenes, since the scenes are incorporated into the episodes. There is no "Making of Life" 11th episode, and the behind-the-scenes featurettes cannot be viewed as extras, but play directly after their corresponding episode. So at first glance it seems like a pretty bare edition, but it really isn't missing much.

As for the deleted scenes, they are narrated by Oprah, so it seems that as if some point when preparing the American version of Life, the scenes were still part of the episode and were cut either for time or because they were a little too harsh for some viewers (one of the scenes depicts a sea lion devouring a baby penguin, with the camera following the half-eaten penguin corpse as it slowly sinks to the bottom of the icy antarctic waters).

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