Following in the footsteps of Planet Earth (2008) and Life (2010), the BBC brings us Human Planet with a decidedly different angle on human’s evolving in extreme parts of the world rather than animals.
Divided into eight episodes, the first seven - Oceans, Deserts, Arctic, Jungles, Mountains, Grasslands, and Rivers - deal specifically with extreme locations, whereas the final part is more like a wrap-up, with potent finger-waving and cautionary banalities from series narrator John Hurt.
Human Planet [HP] is a fine series, but what the BBC inadvertently created was a luxurious HD (1080i) mondo movie, and bless them for elevating the genre from random weirdness or thematic oddities to glimpses of humans coping because of little economic choice, or the decision to stay in remote, dangerous areas is rooted in tradition – move, and a culture gets lost.
An excellent case in point are the African hunters who get their food not from killing animals, but bluffing their way into a lion pack’s feeding frenzy, and scaring off the man-eaters just long enough to walk away with the leg of a wilderbeast – an age-old custom never before filmed, and likely to disappear due to the invasive nature of men entering the habitat of a protected species in a sanctuary.
There’s also the amazing spectacle of a Cambodian fisherman walking a thin rope over deadly rapids to reach a choice rock among rapids, and African fisherman who stand ever-so-close to the edge of a massive waterfall to catch their food. More disturbing are Filipino deep sea divers who descent into the depths of the ocean, unwrap a complex net into which they’ll wrangle fish, while each diver breathes compressed air from a rickety pump up top. There’s also sulphur miners who climb into a live volcano and extract giant yellow blocks of the element with worn cloth masks to protect their lungs - a hellish job detailed in the affecting documentary Where Heaven Meets Hell [M] (2011).
Less unsettling are aspects of ancient cultures still on the go, such as the mud builders who preserve their mosque from the rain; well diggers who hack their way below the desert floor and create sloping aqueducts once they strike water; an extended family who build a tree house hundreds of feel above the jungle floor; and a nomadic desert tribe whose women and children navigate through lookalike dunes in search of a singular well to nourish their livestock before continuing towards a distant market.
There’s also the disturbing Tibetan air burial, hunting with a falcon in the Siberian steppes, a leather tannery in Morocco that uses a noxious mix of lime and bird guano, and footage of a never before seen tribe of aboriginals in the wilds of Brazil’s jungles.
The reason HP can be classified as a mondo film lies in its focus on human weirdness; even if it’s all part of customs and survival, there’s a curious, grisly, shock value to many segments, and the viewer is often wondering why would someone live there / do that / go to so much trouble to get food in terribly difficult terrain. Sometimes the questions are answered, but as is inherent to the mondo genre, there are contrasting moments of awe and shock: the Cambodian fishing footage in the rapids; and the air burial, which requires a village member to hack up the remains of a recently deceased for the benefit of mountain birds of prey who will ‘return’ the dead back to nature.
If the seven episodes are taken alone, HP is pure mondo, but that’s not the BBC’s mandate; the last thing they’d want is to have their latest HD spectacular be on par with the genre’s launch pad, Mondo Cane (1962). Instead, episode eight kind of wraps up man’s weird place in their world in a pastiche called “Cities: Surviving the Urban Jungle,” which is really just a standard cautionary tale about nature (rodents, bed bugs) making its own territorial claims in our own civilized habitats.
Fair enough, and Hurt’s narration manages to add some gravitas to the familiar phraseology of ‘doing better’ and ‘thinking ahead’, but HP is really a mixed showcase of things mondo - the wondrous, the weird, the gross, the elegant, and the beautiful – packaged as a grand, epic Cinerama travelogue.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is unsurprisingly a stunner, and the 5.1 mixes are rich with sound effects. Nitin Sawhney’s score is a punchy blend of south Asian rhythms, western classicism, and vocal effects, although it’s a shame the scores couldn’t have been offered as isolated music-only tracks, or on a commercial CD release. There’s drama and sweeping grace in Sawhney’s writing, which deserves a special spotlight.
Like the prior BBC series, each episode is followed by a 10 mins. making-of featurette, focusing on one segment rather than several from a single episode. There’s a general featurette on the camera men and women after the final episode, and two bonus featurettes featuring temp narration; one suspects these were part of a large group of making-of productions of which Hurt was engaged to narrated a maximum of eight, hence the alternate voice track (which works fine).
A third making-of featurette, “Zankar,” is available as a streaming BD Live feed, and consist of a much longer production overview of the second Tibetan segment of two kids and their father trekking down a frozen river to reach their school.
Running just under 25 mins., it’s a deeper glimpse at the 25 day trek the production endured, with bad weather and illness woes which delayed their final shooting date. The streaming extra (which pauses roughly every 4 mins. for the next feed) should’ve been included on the disc; even as a compressed DIVX file, “Zanskar” would’ve run under 150 MB and could easily have fit, and wouldn’t have necessitated deleting any of the HD BBC trailers. WHV’s Region B release apparently includes the same Disc 3 master, so this notable ephemeral bonus only exists online.
If there’s any issue with the production, it’s that by isolating one environment to one episode, some segments were edited down to brief bits (such as the African monsoon sequence); or a segment’s focus was uneven: both the nomadic desert women and the well diggers are shown working hard in their barren environments, but final glimpses of the lone well and the vast underground aqueducts, respectively, are perfunctory – more was obviously shot, but the finales for these respective segments are abrupt because each thematic lot had to fit within an episode’s 48 mins. length. Pity longer edits weren’t created for home video.
As is typical of the Discovery Channel, an alternate version of the series was created for U.S. audiences. David Attenborough’s voice on Planet Earth and Life were respectively replaced by Sigourney Weaver and Oprah Winfrey, and for HP the Discovery people opted to re-record John Hurt’s track with Mike Rowe. Additionally, like Life, the original score was replaced with new music by Didier Rachou, but unlike the Oprah edition, the Discovery version wasn’t used by WHV – what’s available at present is the original BBC edition.
There’s an interview with Rowe regarding his work on the series, but the question begs: Why would Discovery still insist on mucking around with a BBC series when most people want the BBC edition? The Oprah edition of Life was furiously lambasted by buyers on Amazon.com. It makes no sense beyond the old excuse that Americans don’t like British voices. If that’s the case, John Hurt’s presence in Alien would’ve rendered that film a disaster in middle America in theatres and home video, and The King’s Speech would’ve been a bomb and Oscar loser. Note to Discovery: Is it really worth the trouble when middle America understands Jason Statham and Daniel Craig?
Some might be exhausted by the BBC’s regular wave of HD nature epics, but Human Planet is a different genre hybrid, which may pleasantly surprise those wanting a fresh angle on the environment, or upset fans craving more nature footage. It’s a unique production worth adding to one’s HD ‘demo shelf’, but by going full mondo, the BBC may have strayed a wee bit.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan