Spielberg’s Netflix series renders evolution as an extended feud between rival crime families. By Jeff Sparrow.
Steven Spielberg’s Life on Our Planet
If you watch Netflix’s Life on Our Planet with subtitles, the captioned sound effects satisfactorily deflate the bombast of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s CGI-heavy presentation. “Two million years ago,” explains narrator Morgan Freeman in the opening to episode one, “our planet is a very different place.”
To bolster that unsurprising observation, the camera lingers on a smilodon – or, if you prefer, a sabre-toothed cat – a marvel of digital trickery rendered every bit as lifelike as the Bengal tiger that might star in a more conventional nature show. The caption reads: “[Growls]”.
“A fearsome predator of its age,” observes Freeman, like the ringside hype man at an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. “But standing in the way, a giant terror bird – two metres tall!”
The camera pans back to the cat.
“This is the story,” Freeman says, “of the great battles for survival and the great dynasties that would take over the world. This is the story of life.”
The eight-part series takes the genre perfected by David Attenborough and suffuses it with CGI so effective that the inevitable clash between T-rex and triceratops might have been staged before a Late Cretaceous camera crew. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the electronic wizardry produces a corresponding emotional flattening.
You might recall the nightmarish clip of a baby iguana fleeing myriad racer snakes in Attenborough’s Planet Earth II. Its virality surely depended, at least in part, on viewers’ appreciation of the skill with which the BBC Natural History Unit obtained the extraordinary sequence. By contrast, when Life on Our Planet presents a duck-billed dinosaur tending to its young, the admiration for Industrial Light & Magic’s artistry comes with a recognition that, for all its roaring and growling, the beast might equally have been portrayed running, pirouetting or standing on its head.
The impossible scenes overshadow the show’s often stunning footage of real animals going about their real business. Jellyfish floating daintily, fish schooling with military precision, seeds unfurling into plants: the show contains no shortage of natural wonders. But by interspersing the genuine so promiscuously with the digital, the program diminishes the creatures of the present, whose very reality becomes – in comparison with their pixelated peers – a kind of limitation.
At the same time, CGI effectively strips the past of its mystery and magic. We meet, for instance, anomalocaris, whose name translates, quite splendidly, as the “abnormal shrimp”. But the narration does not bother with how scientists know about the long-extinct creature or why some believe it fed on trilobites. Rather, we’re shown a frenetic chase sequence, as our peculiar prawn – “the world’s first apex predator” – embarks on an extended trilobite hunt.
The replacement of speculation with mere spectacle characterises the series. With almost nothing to say about the life forms it so painstakingly re-creates, Life on Our Planet plays out as a palaeontological Itchy & Scratchy Show, with every new creature puffed mostly as an antagonist – “They fight and bite and fight!” – for a previous species.
We’re introduced, for instance, to perennial favourite diplodocus, a 25-metre-long behemoth shown happily going about its tree-munching business with its friends. “But even at their size,” Freeman warns, “they can never let down their guard … for they aren’t the only giants of the Jurassic.” Cue thunder, lightning and ominous music, before the entrance of allosaurus and… another tedious chase.
As narrator, Freeman outlines what he calls three fundamental principles for life’s development. He asserts that first, the best adapted species will win; second, that competition drives adaption; and third, that Earth does not remain stable. Alongside these Nietzschean precepts, he insists on describing biological taxonomies as “dynasties” (or sometimes “blood lines”), so that the story of evolution plays out as an extended feud between rival crime families. It is, he says, “an unending war, one dynasty rising, only to be vanquished by the next”.
In the grim geopolitics of existence, sharks “rule the waves”, arthropods “conquer the land” and mammals “establish themselves as a global power”. Freeman assures us even plants, despite their disappointing lack of obvious weaponry, deploy what he calls “chemical warfare” to fend off insects.
Yet nothing feels particularly at stake in the mostly bloodless contests between various non-human war lords. Dinosaurs might be, as Freeman says, “the most iconic dynasty of all”, but the extended sequences of them bellowing emptily at each other pall very quickly. Or, at least, they do for this viewer. Quite probably, the backers of the show anticipate an audience among dino-mad kids, who are accustomed to contextless Twitch streams of video game monsters fighting.
For the rest of us, Life on Our Planet offers only Spielbergian kitsch. Consider its introduction to the Ice Age. “On its own,” explains the narration, “a snowflake is a fragile, frozen wonder. No two the same. But together, snowflakes changed the world.” One can imagine Morgan Freeman reacting to his script in the manner of Harrison Ford’s famous response during the making of Star Wars: “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” Nevertheless, say it he does, with each cheesy line taking on extra portentousness through Freeman’s distinctive baritone.
“The mammals had lost their crown,” he intones. “This was the age of reptiles.” Discussing the meteor strike that snuffed out the dinosaurs, he explains that “with the world an apocalyptic graveyard, fungi were in their element”. And then there’s this. “Mammals,” Freeman says, “acquired some extraordinary defences, having been locked in an arms race with snakes.” Only a true professional could get through “an arms race with snakes”.
Perhaps inevitably, the series culminates with an admonition about climate change. “The impact of a mass extinction has not been felt for 66 million years,” the narration explains. “Now we’re on track for the sixth.”
It’s a perfectly valid and sensible warning – and immediately submerged beneath a sticky layer of schmaltz. “Our future, and that of the planet, is yet to be written. How we act now will determine the next chapter in the story of life. But whatever future awaits, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past, it’s that life has always found a way.”
The last line comes, of course, from Jurassic Park, the ancient progenitor from whose blood line Life on Our Planet has descended. Its optimism pertains more to Spielberg’s own relentless positivity than to the process of successive exterminations that’s just unfolded on our screens.
A more accurate summation of that might, perhaps, run: “Life – one damn thing after another.” “[Growls].”
Life on Our Planet is screening on Netflix.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Clash of dynasties".
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