Review: Life Is Strange, Fascinating and Breathtakingly Wonderful

Geek Culture

Photo: Discovery Channel/BBC/© Kevin FlayPhoto: Discovery Channel/BBC/© Kevin Flay

Photo: Discovery Channel/BBC/© Kevin Flay

There is not a single episode of Discovery and the BBC’s Life that would fail to make Avatar look drab and dull by comparison. There are suspenseful chase scenes, bizarre and jaw-droppingly gorgeous creatures, and animal behavior that seems at once alien and familiar — and the best part of it is that it’s all real.

It seems a bit cliché to say that you’ll see things you’ve never seen before, but I can absolutely guarantee that statement is true this time, because there are dozens of things in Life that have never before been filmed and have only rarely been witnessed. And you’ll see things you may have seen before in a new light, as much of the footage was shot on high-speed cameras that take 2000 frames per second. If you fail to goggle in amazement at, for instance, flying fish slowed down so you can see every flap of their “wings,” or at a chameleon’s tongue as it shoots out and snares a praying mantis, then you are far more blasé than I am. If you can see the stalk-eyed fly push its eyes out from its head using air bubbles and not think how strange and incredible it is, then you need to read and watch more science fiction.

The eleven-part series, which premieres this coming Sunday, was made over four years by a joint venture of the BBC and Discovery Channel, and it accomplishes the singular feat of outdoing its predecessor Planet Earth. While Planet Earth filled viewers with a sense of wonderment and awe at the planet we inhabit, Life evokes similar feelings about the amazing shapes, colors and behaviors of all the many living creatures on Earth, but it also instills a sense of pride — pride that we are part of life here, that we get to be counted with all these amazing animals. And it’s not just animals, either. One entire episode (that I was not able to preview) is devoted to plants, and will work somewhat in reverse of the way many of the other episodes do: instead of slowing things down, it will (as one might expect) show the plants sped up.

To get an idea for the sort of lengths the film crews went to to get the footage for Life, consider the way they filmed humpback whales’ “heat run,” in which males battle for mating rights with a particular female (see the video clip below). For part of the filming, they had to get in front of and beneath the whales as they swam past, and they couldn’t use breathing equipment for diving because the bubbles might have disturbed the whales. So the cameraman had to jump into the water ahead of a line of very fast-moving whales, each weighing about 40 tons, and film them as they swam over his head while holding his breath. And that’s just one example of many.

Life is very capably narrated on the Discovery Channel by Oprah Winfrey (David Attenborough narrated the BBC version). The narration is used to transition from scene to scene and to explain things that laypeople aren’t likely to know about what they’re seeing, but, wisely, does not intrude on bits where no explanation is needed. Sometimes you just want to watch and be blown away by what you’re seeing, and the producers are clearly very aware of the visual spectacle they’ve assembled.

I could write a great deal more about Life, but it boils down to this: Watch this series and, if your kids are old enough to understand the narration, show it to them, too. You will be interested by almost everything you see, amused by some things, and flat-out blown away probably a dozen times per episode. Watch it, record it, buy the DVDs when they come out. If you don’t believe me yet, watch the video clip above, or this one of the flying fish.

Life premieres Sunday, March 21, at 8pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel, and continues at the same time on the following four Sundays. Note: Two episodes will air each Sunday, one at 8pm and one at 9pm ET/PT, except on the last night (April 18), when three episodes will air. The final episode, at 10pm ET/PT on April 18, is about the “Making of Life,” which I’ve no doubt will be just as incredible (though for different reasons) than the other episodes.

Wired: I don’t want to sound too effusive with praise, but in all honesty this is one of the best documentary TV series I’ve ever seen. Heck, it beats out most fiction TV series, too.

Tired: The only thing that displeases me with regard to Life is that there isn’t more of it. Not only did they edit down thousands of hours of footage into ten episodes (which is good, of course, because who has the time to watch that much TV?), but they even had to cut bits that were in the BBC version for the Discovery Channel one due to there being more commercials. Fortunately, you can choose to order DVDs of either the Discovery Channel version or the BBC version, so if (like me) you’d rather have the complete episodes and Attenborough’s narration, you can get them in June.

Summary: Go ahead and set your DVR now. You don’t want to miss this.

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