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Movie Review Friday: Human Planet

Posted Apr 21 2011 9:26pm

Escape to the movies with one of our Movie Review Friday selections. Each week we review a film or television event with an environmental theme . Seen a good eco-flick lately? Send us a short review and look for it in the next Movie Review Friday.

Human Planet (2011)

Airs on the Discovery Channel Sundays at 8 p.m. through Apr. 24; available on DVD Apr. 26

It’s a slick idea: Turn the classic nature-doc formula on ourselves. The result isn’t, as one might expect, just another smarmy reality show. In the BBC’s capable hands, humans get the same treatment Planet Earth gave natural phenomena and Life gave animals. The finished product, an eight-part series, is as much art as it is documentary.

Tracking “the most remarkable species of all,” as the trailer calls us, into insane situations, we see humans fishing on the treacherous cusp of Victoria Falls, scaring a full pride of lions off its meaty prey, and enduring a 60-mile trek through icy Himalayan passes just to get to school. We see, basically, men and women conquering seemingly unconquerable elements — and sometimes each other — as they vie for dominance and survival.

The storytelling is expertly done, with well-informed pacing, unobtrusive narration (courtesy John Hurt ), and adept use of music and slow motion. Human Planet owes much to its crisp, color-drenched cinematography; “wow” moments happen every few minutes. Behind-the-scenes clips show how frustrating, and how gratifying, it must be to work on these globetrotting BBC productions.

To their credit, the filmmakers manage to portray tribal cultures in all their anthropological elegance while staying well this side of the noble-savage error. They also avoid deriding “modern” cultures. By showing humans as it did the animals in Life — that is, through an objective, scientific lens — the BBC all but convinces viewers to refrain, for once, from judging their own kind.

Though its earnestness has already inspired at least one enjoyable spoof , even the most misanthropic environmentalist should be able to muster a nod of regard to this ambitious series.

--Avital Binshtock

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