When you're looking at the vast amount of nature documentaries out there, few stand out quite as much as titles from BBC's Natural History Unit. The NHU has been around since the 50's and while their filmography is impressive across the board, their most prolific recent titles are The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. When their latest release, Life, aired in 2009 anticipation grew for the show's broadcast on Discovery Channel here in the States in March of 2010.
Disappointment arose in some circles when it was announced that Oprah Winfrey would be providing the narration for the American release, and not Sir David Attenborough. Personally I lot myself in with that crowd and simply don't understand why Attenborough's pronounced, insightful narration didn't appear in our version. Things being what they were, once I had the chance to actually check out Life, I was able to see what everyone was talking about. It's a gorgeous series and the imagery truly speaks for itself. After all, how can you scoff at three years worth of filming and 150 shoots on seven different continents? It's just a shame that Attenborough's wizened voice was nowhere to be found in the show.
For home video the BBC has released two versions for Region 1. There's the original Attenborough version, which is by all means the quintessential edition, and then there's the Oprah version. Today we're looking at the latter. Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't necessarily have a problem with Oprah's narration at first (though it did feel dumbed down somehow), but I have experienced the Attenborough version. No matter how you slice it this edition of the show is the weaker by far, though the quality is still a cut above the competition and it's a sight worth seeing.
Life features ten episodes spanning four Blu-ray discs. The episodes here are: "Challenges of Life", "Reptiles & Amphibians", "Mammals", "Fish", "Birds", "Insects", "Hunters & Hunted", "Creatures of the Deep", "Plants", "Primates", and "The Making of Life"
Each of the episodes in this show has something to offer audiences, and some of the captures here are truly stunning. Whether it's watching a little rodent escape a lizard, watching a buffalo get attacked by komodo dragons, or even seeing what lurks at the bottom of the ocean, chances are good you'll see something you've never seen before. That's the beauty of the NHU; they take you places most humans have never heard of and show you things you couldn't begin to imagine. It's truly breathtaking how camera crews just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch something few human eyes have seen before.
While all episodes in Life has something to offer, there were a few that stood out as personal favorites of mine. I really enjoyed "Primates", "Mammals", and "Plants". The "Primates" episode features the creatures in their natural habitat; as one might expect, but goes on to show how they've evolved skills such as using stones to break open nuts. In "Mammals" there's a bit of fascinating focus on the humpback whale, and in "Plants" things take on a more serene feeling as we see rare fauna and watch time-lapsed growth.
It's also worth noting that this documentary series isn't necessarily for the squeamish. There's plenty of hunting and animals killing other animals. So if you don't want to watch a creature torn to shreds, you may not appreciate some of the content. This is nature, however, and it's just a part of life. Survival of the fittest, the food chain, and all that.
Attenborough's narration is by far the more informative, intelligent, and discerning of the two. He never once talks down to the viewer and his script maintains a certain tone that informs while it entertains. Oprah's version, while not horrible, just doesn't hold a candle to Attenborough's. When presented with the two options, why would you go for the lesser? If it wasn't for this comparison I would have said that Oprah's narration was serviceable, though not outstanding.
Oprah or not, Life is a spectacular series that simply must be seen. If you enjoyed BBC Earth's previous efforts, then you're absolutely going to fall in love with this one. The show offers breathtaking scenery, rare glimpses at nature, and life as many of us will never see it. It's a series built on an epic scale and the show comes highly recommended.
The boxed set of Life on Blu-ray is downright gorgeous. The four disc set comes with a holographic cover and logo on the spine and it looks great when stacked up on the shelf next to Planet Earth and the like. The case also has an inner compartment, which contains the discs, and it's designed to fold out like a book. Included inside are also a few photographs to liven things up a bit.
Life is presented on Blu-ray with its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a full 1080p with VC-1 encoding that hovers around 30 Mbps. To say the show looks awesome would be an understatement. Every episode captures glorious detail down to the smallest of features from rain droplets on leaves to every piece of fur on the back of a mammal and it's not discerning in the least. Every element stays in focus as well as it should and the picture has some fantastic depth to it. The vibrant colors of nature spring to life in a manner similar to Planet Earth, and there's virtually no flaw to speak of aside from some light blurring that occurs from time to time. This could be attributed to the check disc nature of this review, but regardless of that fact, Life is a stunner even in this state. This truly is showcase material for your home theater and it's something worth checking out.
Life hits Blu-ray with an English DTS- HD HR track. When it comes to documentary tracks there are two things you're going to experience: the narrative and the ambient effects. On the narrative side of the coin Oprah's voice rings through loud and clear with no loss in quality. Her voice remains on the front channels and at key moments she stops talking to let nature literally take its course. The natural sound comes through with a crystalline presentation as well. The sense of immersion isn't as captivating as it could be, but there are many points during the show when the worlds will envelope you. If you ever get sick of listening to Oprah's voice (and I don't know why you would...) there is the available option to shut her off and watch the show without narration. This creates a surreal experience that really makes the material come to life.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included on this release.
Life brings some bonus features to the table and they are spread out across the discs in this boxed set.
The first disc features a behind the scenes feature for each of the three episodes: "Challenges of Life" (11:03), "Reptiles & Amphibians" (10:59), and "Mammals" (11:02). The "Reptiles & Amphibians" once proved to be the most impactful as it showcased the reactions of the two crewmen who were tracking komodo dragons on the hunt. They eventually have to sit, watch, and follow the dragons as the wound, eventually kill, and eat a buffalo before their very eyes. It was a long painful process and through their comments you can really tell the event took its toll on the guys. On a more positive note the "Mammals" episode featured the expedition team tracking humpback whales, playing with a baby whale, and in the midst of a male heat run.
The second disc features "Fish", "Birds", and "Insects". The behind the scenes content for "Fish" (10:58) features the crews of two teams attempting to find different fish. One is tasked with the sail fish, while the other is on the lookout for flying fish. "Birds" (11:00) follows the team as they attempted to track down some rare birds and even included some nighttime camera material. The final episode here, "Insects" (10:56), offers yet another nice focus on the production of a portion of the episode. In the case of "Insects" it focuses on butterflies.
Disc three featured material for "Hunters & Hunted" (10:27), "Creatures of the Deep" (11:10), and "Plants" (10:37). Of these three featurettes the "Plants" one was most fascinating as it turns out the crew did many of the show's shots in studio. One would never get that impression from watching the episode, but I suppose that stands as testament to their work.
The fourth disc here should have offered two behind the scenes featurettes, but instead the disc I received only had one for the "Primates" (10:59) episode. A selection of deleted scenes is here as well, and some of it was presumably cut due to its graphic nature. There's a penguin that's ripped to shreds by a seal, a snake munches on an iguanas babies, and there's some material with flamingoes, the desert rose, and grass.
Life is truly a sight to behold in nearly every way. The picture quality is astounding and its presentation on Blu-ray is truly a cut above. The episodes themselves are also captivating thanks to the footage that was caught on film. Every episode brings something to the table that you've never seen before, and the quality of the supplied information is very educational. Personally I feel that we would learn more from Attenborough's narrative and script, but as it stands the Oprah one isn't bad; it's just not as good. The bottom line is Life is highly recommended no matter which version you get, though if you have a choice I'd suggest going with the BBC release and not the one designed for American audiences.