Sir David Attenborough has, over the years, become more or less synonymous with nature films. His long-acquired detailed knowledge and his undiminished enthusiasm makes him the pre-eminent broadcaster of popular natural history and science. So, at aged 93, the fact that he is still here and making a ‘last’ film should guarantee that we sit up and take notice. This, he says, is his testimony. Whether ‘we’ will actually listen and do something about the problems to which he alludes, is another question of course.
The film takes a reasonably straight chronological approach, but this too has an enormous inbuilt advantage. The fact that Sir David has been travelling to distant environments and reporting for decades on so many habitats (the Life on Earth series was shot in 57 different countries) puts him in the perfect position to notice and chronicle change. Alas, most of that change has been a story of decline.
As he continues to point out, man, as a species, has been so successful in dominating nature, that he can now cause potentially irreversible damage. We are in the Anthropocene and we are not grown up enough to handle it.
The documentary is neither shrill nor hectoring. It does acknowledge, for example, that there have been five mass extinctions in the long history of the Earth. However, the last one was when a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and we have presumably learnt a thing or two since then.
What we do know is that the ecologies of the planet are intricately linked and that a loss of biodiversity is the main thing we should be concerned about. Whether it is in the rain forests or in the plains, nature is both fecund and in balance and we mess with that at our peril.
Because the film is mostly concerned with shaping itself into a kind of essay or reasoned argument linked to the environments he has covered, it does not have extended sections of the sort of mesmerising animal photography for which his series are so beloved, There is enough of that footage though, to make us wonder and love nature in all its forms. It is perhaps no surprise that the film is made in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund.
It should be noted that the film isn’t just a death knell rung for our only planet. In the last section of the documentary, Sir David points out that there are several good trends to champion and give us hope (eg. the population boom beginning to plateau, the ready availability of non-fossil-based renewable energies and the current moves to stop us fishing out the oceans).
As implied, overall, it balances a strong sense of a wakeup call with a loving look at the sheer beauty that it is so vital to preserve.
* The cinema release includes exclusive content – a conversation with David Attenborough and Michael Palin following the film (not available on Netflix). Find session details at au.attenborough.film or cinema websites. David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet on Netflix October 4