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Four years in the making, filmed over 3,000 days, across every continent and in every habitat, Life is the latest wildlife blockbuster from the BBC’s award-winning Natural History Unit, the producers of Planet Earth and The Blue Planet. Packed wit
For more about Life and the Life Blu-ray release, see Life Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on April 30, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Writer: David Attenborough
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Life Blu-ray Review
Attenborough helms the superior edition of this fascinating documentary series...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, April 30, 2010
"I remember a hundred lovely lakes, and recall the fragrant breath of pine and fir and cedar and poplar trees. The trail is strung upon it, as upon a thread of silk, opalescent dawns and saffron sunsets. It has given me blessed release from care and worry, and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and the peaceful. Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and benumbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail. And when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me. I am happy." Hamlin Garland, 1899
There are times when the roar of industry is quieted; moments in which the electronic chorus of the Information Age is drowned out by the stillness, meticulous order, and absolute majesty of the natural world. For most of us, such simplicity is a strange, alien existence experienced from the confines of a cozy room bathed in LCD light. But for the men and women of the BBC Natural History Unit -- a group of documentarians responsible for acclaimed series and productions like Planet Earth, Galapagos, Ganges, Yellowstone, and Wild Pacific -- this untamed kingdom is far more wondrous and engrossing than any creature comfort man could create. Four years in the making, Life is yet another outstanding manifestation of their passions and pursuits. Over the course of ten episodes, the footage they capture is nothing short of breathtaking and the risks they take are nothing short of inspiring. It's just a shame their efforts have been overshadowed by the release of two distinct versions of the series: this, the original BBC edition, narrated by respected naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, and the US-produced Discovery Channel edition, narrated (somewhat woodenly) by daytime television monolith Oprah Winfrey. Both feature the same stunning photography; both offer similar glimpses of sights previously unseen; and both should please their respective audiences immensely. Be that as it may, the Attenborough version has rightfully emerged as the fan-favorite, bringing with it a more knowledgeable guide and more involving narration.
The biggest drawback to any nature series is that no amount of footage could possibly address the countless species that call Earth home. Even with ten, fifty-minute episodes, Life and its NHU filmmakers barely scratch the surface, relying on a few dozen creatures to investigate the manner in which wildlife survives and thrives, often in harsh, unforgiving conditions. In an appropriately frank opener, "Challenges of Life," Attenborough introduces many of the intriguing animals that will frequent later episodes, touching on some of the bizarre, at-times otherworldly techniques each one employs on a daily basis. Capuchin monkeys develop eerily human sensibilities to crack open palm nuts, a trio of daring cheetahs tackle everything from zebras to ostriches, bottlenose dolphins stir up thick clouds of dirt to chorale schools of mullet, and aggressive hippos throw their weight around to establish territorial dominance.
From there, "Reptiles and Amphibians," "Mammals," "Fish," "Birds," and "Insects" cut a steady swath through the planet's coldest mountains, thickest jungles, and deepest seas, revealing the smartest predators and cleverest prey that graces each class. Chameleons capture insects with their lighting fast tongues, komodo dragons hunt water buffalo and demonstrate their savage mastery of their muddy terrain, and Jesus lizards walk on water; hyenas tempt fate by engaging with the veritable kings of the jungle, elephants care for their young, and humpback whales finally give up their greatest secrets; sailfish dart after food, flying fish leap above the waves, and devious sharks patrol the sea floor; a hummingbird hovers gracefully at the tip of a flower, a flock of flamingos prepare their nests, and thermal-gliding vultures rise on the currents; Darwin beetles clash, carabids spit acid, and damsel flies dodge leaping frogs. Watching each animal is an absorbing experience; seeing the common threads of life come to light even more so.
In "Hunters and Hunted," Life hones in on the predatory behaviors and instinctual interactions of a variety of mammals, both new and familiar. From the cliffs of the Dead Sea -- where a nimble mountain antelope called a Nubian Ibex evades a grisly fate -- to the prowling grounds of a Bengal tiger, the NHU provides a front row seat to some truly intense hunts and narrow escapes. A killer whale takes advantage of seal pups in a shallow pool, bulldog bats fish by paying close attention to the ripples in the water, ermines play together to become more efficient hunters, and brown bears hungrily scoop up soaring salmon to get their fill. As is the case with each episode, Life once again pulls back the curtain on species-defining events that have never been captured on camera; even some things that, until now, have been a complete mystery.
It's this commitment to the unknown that allows "Creatures of the Deep," "Plants," and "Primates" to leave lasting marks. Deep sea invertebrates catapult through dark waters in pursuit of fleeing fish, Humboldt squid use teamwork to prevail, giant cuttlefish compete in games of flamboyance and deception to win coveted mates, and a Pacific octopus gives her life to protect her eggs; stunning time-lapse photography produces footage of snaking vines, a year-long look at an oak woodland, saguaros develop fruit that disperse their seeds through hungry animals, and high-mountain bristlecone pines tout their wisdom as the oldest living beings on the planet; Japanese macaque reward their strongest bloodlines with members-only baths, sexual prowess among monkeys is flaunted through everything from glands to song, and chimpanzees display signs of immense intelligence. Through it all, Attenborough educates and entertains, providing insight into each animal's development, evolution, and success in its ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the majority of US television viewers haven't had the pleasure of listening to Attenborough's narration. Winfrey does little to distinguish her delivery in the Discovery Channel cut of the series, barking armchair commentary with commendable vigor, but less affection and admiration. Attenborough, by contrast, audibly marvels at everything that unfolds before him and, in turn, seems to grasp how miraculous and astonishing it all is. Whereas Winfrey comes across as curious and amused, Attenborough establishes his presence with thoughtful reflection, consistent wonder, and a careful control over every word that escapes his lips. He isn't just a narrator, he's a storyteller; one who revels in his craft and longs to help others understand the magnificence of it all.
My lone, lingering complaint has little to do with Attenborough's work. While all of the episodes feature fairly arresting narratives -- taut, well-paced stories that drive the series along -- Life's meta-narrative isn't as evocative or moving as that of Planet Earth. It often struck me as an addendum to its award-winning forefather rather than a towering production in its own right. That's certainly not to belittle what the series brings to the table, but when I reached the end of "Primates," I couldn't help but feel an episode was missing. Without a proper cap, an entry designed to serve as a bookend, Life's tale was left unfinished, and the NHU's journey left unresolved. Even so, nature enthusiasts won't be disappointed with the bulk of that journey, and should celebrate each episode accordingly. With so many newly documented discoveries, such beautiful photography, and such mesmerizing subjects, Life will continue to thrill, inform, and entrance anyone who takes the time to soak up every minute.
Life Blu-ray, Video Quality
The BBC version of Life arrives with an at-times breathtaking, altogether stunning 1080p/VC-1 transfer; one that boasts gorgeous colors and remarkable detail, and puts most other nature documentary presentations to shame. Still, comparisons to the series' 1080i Discovery Channel release are the most inevitable and the most unavoidable. Simply put, the differences between the two aren't earth shattering -- in some instances, our beloved little "p" may as well stand for "placebo" -- but they are notable. There are plenty of scenes and shots in which the tiniest strands of animal hair are crisper, distant foliage is more refined, and the craggly crevices of rocky ravines are more revealing. In fact, the whole of the image struck me as more stable and, for lack of a better term, more tangible. But that boost in clarity comes with a small price: the Natural History Unit's photography is sometimes beset by more obvious source anomalies. Errant noise is more apparent, the faint vertical lines that plague the series' slow-motion sequences are more visible, and intermittent softness still haunts the NHU's trickiest shots (particularly those involving extreme weather or harsh conditions). However, the vast majority of these anomalies trace back to the inherent limitations of the team's equipment and the subsequent shortcomings of their photography, not the integrity of the studio's technical transfer. Banding and artifacting (both of which pop up from time to time in the 1080i Discovery Channel version) have all but been eliminated, black levels are a tad deeper, definition is slightly sharper, and sprawling vistas pack a bit more punch. The overall upgrade isn't as bar-elevating as some will claim (most viewers who overlook the small disclaimer on the set's back cover won't even notice that a single episode, "Plants," is inexplicably presented in 1080i), but it does give the BBC transfer a worthwhile edge over its Discovery Channel cousin.
Life Blu-ray, Audio Quality
After a bit of volume leveling, it's quite clear that little separates the BBC's 2046 kbps DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1 surround track from its DTS-HD HR 5.1 Discovery Channel counterpart. Well, other than the warm blanket that is David Attenborough's narration. From a technical standpoint though, Attenborough's tireless voice is as clean and clear as Winfrey's, and just as commanding a presence in the series' soundscape. His impassioned delivery caps a wholly serviceable, albeit largely front-heavy experience that does a decent job bolstering the rushing waterfalls, roaring beasts, and surging storms that frequent Life. As is the case with most documentary series, Attenborough's steady stream of factoids kindly lord over the natural sounds of the subjects at hand, tasking the rear speakers with restrained ambience and the LFE channel with measured support. It's all reasonably effective, mind you -- immersive even -- but hardly anything worth getting excited about. It is worth mentioning that the Discovery Channel release of the series offers an intriguing alternate mix, sans narration; a classy, no-frills option I would have loved to see replicated on the BBC edition. At least in theory. In practice, the DC version's intriguing narration-free track was little more than a bland Dolby Digital stereo bore. Perhaps its absence here is a blessing in disguise. Ultimately, documentary enthusiasts will applaud the DTS-HD High Resolution results, even though the BBC release doesn't flex the Master Audio muscle many had hoped it would.
Life Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The BBC release of Life clocks in at approximately 499 minutes, a full fifteen minutes longer than the Discovery Channel release. However, it appears that the DC edition still includes the extra footage -- in the form of Winfrey-narrated Deleted Scenes -- meaning the Discovery Channel version's 42-minute "Making of Life" special is the lone casualty in Life's supplemental wars. Thankfully, the BBC edition serves up the same informative, unexpectedly personable "Life on Location" featurettes (Discs 1-4, HD, 109 minutes) that grace its US doppelgänger. Just don't look for a Special Features menu. The mini-docs are attached to the episodes themselves, and begin playing automatically after each one. Together, the featurettes introduce the brave Natural History Unit photographers and scientists who brought Life to, erm... life, reveal the challenges that were faced along the way, and delve into the manner in which each obstacle was overcome. The only other bonus to be found is a set of basic calibration tools designed for casual videophiles.
Life Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The response has been overwhelming and nearly unanimous: Lifers prefer the original BBC version of the series to its US counterpart. Winfrey's efforts and delivery aren't without some merit, but Attenborough's experience and expertise shine through, granting the BBC edition a serious edge. It only helps that it also offers a gorgeous 1080p video transfer. Sure, it doesn't exactly render the Discovery Channel's 1080i presentation moot -- far from it -- but it does boast a few notable improvements, all of which add value to the overall package and manage to enhance the NHU's jaw-dropping photography. And since its DTS-HD High Resolution audio track and supplemental package are largely the same, Life fans would do well to shuffle past the Discovery Channel release and add the BBC edition to their carts.
Life: Other Seasons
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