Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

When we look at how time-lapse technology accelerates a tree’s journey of several years from roots to the sky, or its destruction by leaf-cutting ants, we can think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s reflection that “nothing can endure but variability.” Well, nothing but variability and David Attenborough.

The tireless 95-year-old now presents more than two-thirds of the BBC’s century of broadcast prestige nature documentaries. His latest, The Green Planet, is another remarkable product of the symbiosis between his decades of experience and ingenious, latest filming techniques.

In recent years, his presence in these performances has been largely similar to that of a quasi-deity – an almost omniscient voice who looks at the wonders of the earth and confirms that it is indeed good. But here Attenborough can actually be found in his element, in place and in one with his surroundings. The radiant expression of childlike joy when he comes face to face with a bat – an animal that can really do with some positive press these days – poignantly confirms that his sense of awe and curiosity has not even been slightly diminished by time or notoriety.

As the title suggests, it is flora, not fauna, that serves as the main focus of this new five-part series that promises to show us plants “from their perspective”, using (often literally) groundbreaking technology to capture underground microcosms to capture and views from the sky.

But the success of these documentaries is not just built on incredible footage or Attenborough’s warm, wise voice-overs. They also tend to trade with a keen affinity for storytelling, as related human values, personalities, and motivations are attributed to animals working on purely biological instincts, while clever editing cultivates tension and danger.

To create a captivating plot and evoke empathy from footage of an “innocent” baby iguana fleeing from a nest of “evil” snakes is one thing, to do so with faceless flowers and fungi is’ a completely different challenge – one that The Green Planet gladly get up.

© BBC Studios

This first episode takes us into the depths of the world’s rainforests that Attenborough describes as “battlefields”. Numerous gripping series of green violence – tree shoots strangling opponents, plants devouring unsuspecting animals, trees poisoning their insect predators – let us be fully convinced of the analogy long before we see hundreds of powered seedlings rain down on the landscape like the fleet of helicopters in Apocalypse Now.

Elsewhere, one particularly fascinating, confusing segment sees millions of ants struggling in slavery to feed a giant underground mushroom lord. It plays out like a fever dream by Hayao Miyazaki translated into hyper-reality through an excellent agile, ultra-HD camera work that showcases the astonishing natural architecture and engineering that is invisible to the eye.

But there is one shot that gives us a totally more uncomfortable vantage point. While Attenborough stands, seemingly covered by dense growth on all sides, the hem is pulled back to reveal that he is standing only meters from a road; 70 percent of rainforest plants, it seems, grow today just a mile from a man-made track. It is a sobering reminder that unless decisive action is now taken to preserve these fragile, fragmented ecosystems, their loss of our planet may well be immutable.


On BBC1 from 9 January at 19:00

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