David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet review – A powerful, angry film from a man who has witnessed the destruction of Earth’s habitats

The naturalist’s latest Netflix release looks back over his near 70-year broadcasting career 

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 30 September 2020 06:03 BST
Netflix trailer for David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

David Attenborough says A Life On Our Planet (Netflix) is his “witness statement”, a 90-minute summary of nearly 70 years in broadcasting. The crime is the destruction of Earth’s habitats, for which he has had a ringside seat. If that sounds slightly po-faced, there’s an anger in this tone that hasn’t always been present in his work. This is the kind of film that could slip into self-congratulation, but the way Attenborough tells it, it’s only because of the urgency of the cause that he is allowing himself to be treated in such a valedictory manner. Necessarily, there is a ring of finality to A Life on Our Planet, but then again we’ve wondered whether each new Attenborough might be the last for about 20 years. You’d be brave to bet on it.  

Footage and memories from his career, starting with the young man hunting for ammonites in Leicestershire, alternate with a new interview, with his face in close-up, in which he lays out the scale of the disaster and tentative hopes of improvement. His recent films have had a familiar rhythm: eye-popping flora, fauna and scenery for most of the film, and then a depressing environmental message in the final few minutes. This time the balance is reversed. 

Much of A Life on Our Planet has the pacing of a horror film. The story begins happily, in Attenborough’s childhood and early broadcasts, where the world seemed like a paradise, and then quickly worsens. Three measures of progress appear in stark type on screen: the Earth’s human population, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the percentage of Earth’s wilderness remaining. Two of the numbers rise rapidly, one falls just as fast. In the most terrifying sequence, he projects what we might expect from future decades if we continue to trash the Earth.  

It’s difficult to imagine Attenborough's absence, but in his most recent series his presence has sometimes felt a bit distracting. Surely it’s time to hand over to someone else. In A Life On Our Planet, however, Attenborough wields his age as a rhetorical device. Even at 94, he endures, showing us the glory of the Earth and the error of our ways. He fixes us in the eye, one now drooping, carefully enunciating his words. “Human beings have overrun the Earth,” he says. I found it unexpectedly moving, not only for the loss on the Earth, but for the amount of my own life I can measure in Attenborough documentaries. Whatever I’ve been doing, he has been there, saying the same thing. Older viewers might feel it even more acutely. These programmes at which I've spent so much time gawping are also testament to years of hypocrisy and inaction.  

Although Attenborough concedes he was naive to think he was ever exploring unspoilt paradise, he still makes the point that his career has coincided with the mass destruction of the wilderness. He is also the same age as television. If you look back at his career, it’s clear he’s one of those artists synonymous with new technology, in his case colour TV. (He was also a pioneer of HD.) He made his name in black and white, but the clips collected here are a reminder that his best work has been full-spectrum. The ginger pop of an orangutan marooned on top of a bare tree trunk, the white of a polar bear swimming in an iceless polar sea, rainbow-coloured birds hopping around in the jungle.  

To leave us on as much of a high as possible, in the final minutes he offers us a ray of hope. Reforestation schemes in Costa Rica and solar power in Morocco prove the power of the right incentives. If only a third of Britain’s coastline was protected against fishing, our seas would soon be full of fish again. The quicker we can raise the global standard of living, the sooner everyone will stop having so many children. The film is bookended at Chernobyl, the site of one of humanity’s most egregious disasters but also proof that nature thrives without us. Whether humans can learn to live with our world before we destroy it entirely is an open question. Thanks to Attenborough and the thousands of brilliant producers, camera operators, editors, guides and other crew who have worked with him over the decades, we at least know what we are losing. 

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