Sparklingly narrated by David Attenborough, Planet Earth spans eleven hour long episodes that treats viewers to sights of such rare creatures as the Amur leopard, among just forty in the world. Emperor penguins endure nights in the savage Antarctic cold that last for months at a time, separated from any trace of food and fueled by an overpowering parental instinct. We see polar bear cubs claw their way out of the snow into an unforgiving climate. A dazzling shot of a great white shark attacking a seal is slowed down dozens of times, following the beast as he propels himself fully out of the water to tear into his prey. Other highlights include a glacier more than forty miles long. An Ethiopian volcano that's been erupting continually for a century. A piranha feeding frenzy in the Amazon river. A devastating onslaught of billions of locusts. A microcosm of life in a titanic pile of bat droppings. Deserts blanketed with snow. The almost alien worlds of vast underground caves and deep-sea life. A scarcity of resources that pairs lions and elephants at the same pond and eventually costs one of the majestic pachyderms its life. Fresh water dolphin. The fascinatingly bizarre mating rituals of the many varieties of birds of paradise. Parasitic fungi tailored to specific insects that infect their minds and cause their tiny bodies to rupture. A raiding party of chimpanzees as they hope to violently expand their territory. A creature dubbed a flying lemur despite the fact that it doesn't fly and isn't a lemur. Scores of sailfish attacking a shoal of bait fish. This list hopefully gives some indication as to how wide Planet Earth casts its net but just barely scratches the surface; Randy Miller's DVD review offers a more detailed breakdown of each of the set's eleven episodes.
I can't fathom the planning, coordination, and unwavering patience that must've gone into producing this series. Time lapse photography is a mainstay of nature documentaries, but Planet Earth takes it one step further, keeping the camera fluid while smoothly and seamlessly stepping forward in time. The photography varies from distant aerial shots untold thousands of feet above the ground to close-ups so tight that each and every hair on a bee is clear and distinct. Planet Earth takes care to note how rare it is for even the dedicated to glimpse so many of these animals -- several of which barely number in the dozens in the wild -- and yet the documentary's cameras are able to provide lingering, intimate shots of them. In fact, a fair amount of what Planet Earth offers had never before been documented as it has here.
There's virtually nothing to complain about Planet Earth. The pacing is nimble but never feels rushed, and its coverage of each subject is sufficiently thorough without getting mired in minutiae. The minimal overlap across episodes is hardly enough to be of any concern, and there's very little particularly graphic material to worry parents of young children. Some of the footage is rather intense, though. Animals are hunted and eaten, the young occasionally succumb to the harsh world in which they live, and the predators themselves sometimes face a grisly fate. One of the most memorable sequences in the series follows a polar bear that's forced to swim to the point of exhaustion. Starved to a fraction of his body weight and unable to find any easy prey, he attacks a well-fortified group of walruses. His claws and teeth are unable to penetrate the beasts' blubbery flesh, and after numerous struggles and repeated injuries at the end of the walruses' tusks, the polar bear admits defeat, essentially curling up to die. This is a sight more harrowing than anything in the overwhelming majority of the Hollywood dramas I've seen, and a screenwriter and a laptop weren't required to hammer it out either.
Planet Earth holds the impressive distinction of being the highest grossing release on each of these next-generation formats and deservedly so. This epic documentary series is awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word: astonishingly beautiful, powerfully emotional, tremendously informative, and exceptionally entertaining. Simply put, Planet Earth is essential viewing.
This boxed set of Planet Earth reflects the series' original broadcasts on the BBC, retaining its original runtime and the narration by David Attenborough. The somewhat truncated version of the series that aired domestically on the Discovery Channel with revised narration by actress Sigourney Weaver is not available on HD DVD or Blu-ray as I write this.
Video: Planet Earth's eleven episodes have been encoded using VC-1 and are spread across the four dual-layer discs in this set. The series was shot primarily on high definition video at 24 frames per second, giving it a film-like appearance that I personally prefer over the look of video. Nature documentaries are told almost entirely through their visuals, and Planet Earth was tailor-made for this sort of spectacular high definition presentation. With a few easily overlooked exceptions, Planet Earth is dazzlingly detailed and exhibits an impressive amount of depth and dimensionality. Its colors are natural and accurate, but with such an emphasis on exotic creatures and landforms, its hues are often exceptionally bright and vivid. The authoring is masterful as well; difficult visuals such as flurries of hooves and swarms of locusts -- literally millions upon millions of them attacking the entirety of the 1.78:1 frame -- never result in any compression hiccups. There is some infrequent banding, but it's mild, rare, and likely unavoidable.
The image sporadically falls short of perfection, but it's completely understandable considering the nature of the shoot. On a film set, you can obviously assemble elaborate lighting rigs, spend as much time as necessary tweaking the lights and fiddling with the camera's location, and have the actors give a scene as many passes as necessary until it's just right. A nature documentary doesn't enjoy those same luxuries. More dimly-lit moments can be rather noisy, and the distant aerial photography often doesn't exhibit quite the same level of detail I've seen in comparable shots on other HD DVDs. There's also some sporadic softness, and clearly the few scattered moments shot on standard definition DV don't stack up by comparison. These are all completely negligible concerns, and they're listed just out of an attempt to be comprehensive. Considering what an arduous shoot I'm sure this was, it's thoroughly remarkable that Planet Earth is able to maintain such an exceptionally high level of quality for so much of its runtime. Inherently inconsistent but overall one of the most visually impressive releases on the format.
Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio, even though it's not lossless or even encoded at a particularly high bitrate, outclasses most of the feature films in my HD DVD collection. The sound design doesn't think of the audience as some sort of detached observer; its aggressive use of all of the channels it has on-hand places viewers squarely in the middle of these some 200 locations throughout the globe. The mix is teeming with discrete effects, innumerable smooth pans from channel to channel, and some of the strongest imaging of any HD DVD release to date. Sometimes it's understated; a consistent sense of ambiance or, say, a fly buzzing from the left front speaker to the surrounds, then flitting behind the viewer back to the right. Other times it's colossal: a mammoth tree tumbling over in the jungle, the thunderous onslaught of an avalanche, and the crushing roar of ocean waves. Those sorts of sound effects are further supported by a mighty low-end, summoning powerful barrages of bass from the subwoofer. The mix is balanced to ensure that the orchestral score doesn't dominate any of these natural sounds, and David Attenborough's warm narration is rooted in the center channel and never overwhelmed even in the more tumultuous sequences. A tremendous effort.
There are no other soundtracks on this HD DVD, and presumably licensing concerns prevented the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver's narration from the Discovery Channel's broadcasts. Each disc does offer optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Extras: The DVD release included ten minute production diaries for each episode as well as the two and a half hour follow-up series Planet Earth: The Future. None of these -- nor any extras of any kind -- are offered here, leaving the high-definition release less definitive than it really should have been.
Conclusion: With most movies and television series, the additional resolution that high definition offers is appreciated, enhancing an experience that's a marked improvement over -- but not fundamentally different from -- a standard definition DVD. This is not the case with Planet Earth; this awe-inspiring documentary series is defined by its staggering scope and visual majesty, and high definition is essential to fully appreciate it. The omission of extras from the DVD release is a tremendous disappointment and the only reason Planet Earth didn't earn DVD Talk's highest possible recommendation. Highly Recommended.
Related Reviews: Randy Miller has written a fantastic review of the DVD edition of Planet Earth, complete with detailed comments about the extras missing from this set if you'd like a second opinion.