David Attenborough chronicles life through his eyes in documentary

David Attenborough
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

The moment David Attenborough stutters a single “um” halfway through “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” viewers are exposed to the humanity lying underneath his steely exterior. In his faltering, he finds an emotional footing for scientific communication. With this film, directors Jonathan Hughes, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey craft a transcendent epilogue to Attenborough’s life’s work, casting him as the protagonist in this story of ideas, evolution and death.

Having dedicated his career to all the life around him, it is only fitting that viewers finally get a glimpse into his life. Opening with Attenborough wandering the regretful structures of Chernobyl, the first scene lacks anything new to say about the disaster. He touches on what happened, then segues with, “But Chernobyl was a single event. The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe … the loss of our planet’s wild places.” In this first pass, the film uses restraint, holding onto a revelation that will be made more impactful by the rest of the film’s substance. It works.

This cold open gives way to the documentary’s strongest portion: Attenborough’s “witness statement.” In a heavy-handed reminder that this is not just another nature documentary, Attenborough’s childhood self, played by Max Hughes, searches for 180 million-year-old fossils in the rocks a short bike ride from his home. Suddenly, 93-year-old Attenborough takes his place in the present and, with all the same boyish energy, he proudly displays his latest find from his old digging ground, kicking off a journey through his life covering the natural world. The anxious emotion in these time shifts provides a solid narrative foundation for climate change –– one rooted in the celebration of life rather than the terrifying numbers.

The gut-wrenching climax of his witness statement sees his face superimposed over archival footage of his younger self, concluding that the wild world he saw was an illusion. Audiences are familiar with Attenborough talking down the lens; however, the moment he falters –– the “um” moment as the film returns to his testimonial –– is made possible by a “clever mirror rig” that enables him to talk to Hughes directly while looking down the lens. That invisible change perfectly encapsulates what the truly great moments of the film have: heart. In a world increasingly ambivalent toward scientific communication, Attenborough provides a reason to listen … and lays the foundation for the film’s weaker second half.

The images and predictions of the devastation coming in the next lifetime are horrifying, yet Attenborough reckons the solutions are simple: “Rewild the world.” A series of basic suggestions follow, with the film hanging on his every word: renewable energy, raising the global standard of living, protecting wild areas and global diet change, among other ideas. Yet the film, attempting to strike a hopeful tone, leaves wide open pauses for those simple ideas to fall apart –– not because they cannot work, but because of the reasons the film gives earlier for the “success” of the human species: humans evolve in ideas, and nature regulates itself through a give and take that humanity is no longer beholden by. 

Attenborough purposely steers clear of power structures, politics and the forces of human idea evolution he relies on earlier that break his hopeful vision. While this choice depoliticizes the issue, the tension between his simple solutions and the inability of people to collectively act, hidden in his lingering pauses, is only evident to those already fighting environmental power structures. For those people, the sadness of reality only empowers the film further.

Returning to Chernobyl, the film reveals that in the relatively short time since people fled, the wild has reclaimed its territory. The empty shells of human error now play host to a bounty of life, redeeming the hopeful tone of the solutions with evidence that humanity is either going with nature, or nature will go on after humanity disappears. “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” is itself an example of its own vision for the Earth. Humans have broken free of restrictions with the destructive ability to evolve in ideas far faster than nature can evolve physically to answer them. This film is Attenborough’s hand in human evolution.

Contact Lachie Wappet at [email protected].