Movies: Planet Earth

Years ago, when I first heard of the Discovery Channel, I wondered how there could be that many people interested in watching nature shows. Even when they were free I had little interest, and I couldn’t imagine paying to be able to watch them. Then I married a molecular biologist who had loved watching nature shows when he was a boy. And we had boys who took an interest in them, especially our younger son. Now I am considering purchasing Planet Earth.

I suppose it is partly because I want to encourage Al in what he loves, just as we encouraged his older brother in music. I remember reading Ranger Rick as a kid, but it didn’t greatly interest me. (I would guess we got it for my older sister, who always found natural science more interesting than I did.) Al reads Ranger Rick, and this Christmas asked for Zoo Books also, and also announced that he liked Dog Fancy after reading some old copies during puppy obedience class. (I ordered Dogs for Kids for him instead, which he is enjoying – but now the magazine is ceasing publication and the remainder of our subscription will be fulfilled by Dog Fancy.)

Partly it is also my own discovery of an interest in these programs, having seen several nature programs at the IMAX theater. On a TV screen – even on wide-screen – they’re hardly as impressive as on the towering IMAX screen, but the beauty and strangeness captured by skilled nature photographers still amaze me. I consider myself pretty well educated, but there is so much about the natural world that I had no idea about.

The original series of eleven episodes is available on four DVD volumes. We rented Volume 2, which includes the segments on Great Plains, Jungles, and Shallow Seas. Al’s attention span turns out to be slightly less than one full segment, so we watched most of Great Plains two nights ago, and I watched all of Jungles last night, with Al going to bed right before the chimpanzees went on the warpath. As I only rented it for one night, I had to return it without seeing Shallow Seas – but we saw enough for me to decide it’s worth purchasing.

Based on the display I had seen in the store, I had expected the film to show primarily landscapes – in other words, land formations, water, and vegetation. It could be interesting, I thought, to see an aerial view of many parts of the world, or closeups of coral reefs, rain forests, and rugged mountains. That could get dull after a while, though, which is why I hesitated to buy it.

There certainly are fantastic vistas to see, but for me the best part is how each area is presented as a complete system. The mountains affect the rainfall on nearby plains, the lack of trees on the tundra means that even eagles have to nest on the ground, and the amount and kind of food available determines the size and variety of animals. This is particularly evident in the segment on the rain forest.

The mating habits of birds of paradise are quite a show (and hard to capture on film, as the 10-minute Planet Diaries about making the movie demonstrates at the end of the Jungles portion). But it was the fungi that captured my attention more. Partly, I suppose, this was from the impressive time-elapse photography that lets the viewer see the fungi grow, in a profusion of unusual forms. (The little white things that grow in our ditch are pretty boring in comparison.) But I was also fascinated to learn the importance of the fungi for the continued existence of the rain forest, because of their role in quickly processing dead materials and returning nutrients to be reused by the vegetation.

There is a memorable scene of a parasitic fungus (cordyceps) growing out of the head of an ant whose body it took over. There are many varieties of this fungus, each adapted to live off the death of a particular species (not all ants, but they did all seem to be insects). One after another, the movie showed dead bodies, and living fungus growing out of them. While Al had seemed unfazed by seeing thirty lions bring down and then feast on an elephant, this more insidious killer worried him. Before I could turn out the light at bedtime, I had to assure him that the fungi growing where we live did not include a parasite that might take over our bodies.

The deaths caused by these fungi are good for the rain forest, the movie explains. They serve to keep the various species in check, so that no one of them can become too numerous, disrupting the delicate balance that exists there. In every segment we watched, death and violence were present. It’s one thing to know, conceptually, that outside our carefully engineered human-friendly environments, a constant cycle of life and death is played out. But seeing it happen in real time on the screen is a reminder of something our less-sheltered ancestors knew better than we do, and one needed, I think, for a realistic perspective on life in this world.

Almost as impressive as the actual footage is the kind of effort that went into producing it. How in the world, I wondered over and over, do they manage to get these shots without disrupting the animal behavior under observation? The Planet Diaries segments give some insight into this. Sometimes it meant hiding in a camouflaged shelter for hours on end, waiting for the animal to appear and engage in a particular behavior. But for other shots, apparently technology has developed to the point that physical proximity is not always needed.

I was amazed to learn, from the trivia section at, that  “For the air shots, a special airborne camera was used with a 400mm lens that was able to zoom into single animals from a kilometer away without disturbing them.” I imagine that must be how they managed to film life-and-death struggles on the Arctic tundra where there was no possible place to hide. In some cases, of course, it would not matter greatly if the animals noticed the camera. Some of the primates, for instance, seemed to be looking right into the lens, and were perhaps wondering if it might be fun to check it out more closely.

For me, the other most memorable scene was from a group of chimpanzees. I have long heard how intelligent chimps are, able to learn sign language well enough to carry on conversations with humans. What surprised me was to see other behavior remarkably reminiscent of humans. I know a lot of animals are strongly territorial, and they will fight off interlopers of their own or other species. But the sight of a large troop of chimps, stealthily walking in single file down a path through the jungle to attack another group of chimps, was not something I would have expected.

Nor was the cannibalism. Having routed the other group, and killed one of their young in the process, the victors share the meat of the dead chimp. The narrator explains that the reason for the cannibalism is unknown, though it may be simply to avoid wasting perfectly good protein. It had already been explained that territory = access to food, so maintaining territory = survival. This, however, was an expansion of territory, at the expense of those who previously controlled it. It’s very familiar behavior in humans, but I hadn’t realized chimps did the same.

Now I just have to decide whether to purchase this in standard DVD format or on Blu-ray. The standard DVD set comes with bonus materials which are not included with the Blu-ray edition. But my husband bought a PS3 partly so we could watch high-definition DVDs and Blu-ray, and he tells me the improvement in resolution and color is spectacular. Much as I enjoy bonus materials, I might just have to go for the superior picture, and see a magnificent movie made even more dazzling.


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