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Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet was released on Netflix on Sunday 4th October, being moved from a cinematic release in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cinematic release of the film was something that had to come to my particular attention, due to its relevance to a module I was studying last academic year. In this module’s essay, I compared the yet-unreleased film to Al Gore’s two documentary films, An Inconvenient Truth, and An Inconvenient Sequel, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. Unlike its initial cinema release, the release of the film on Netflix crept up on me very unexpectedly. While initially presented as a reflection on the developments in environmentalism during Sir David’s lifetime, the film soon develops to become a platform for the broadcaster to discuss the issue of climate change.
When discussing this huge issue, Attenborough pulls no punches, describing the current state of the environment, and the potential future for the planet. My dad, who chose to watch the film with me, stated: “this almost brings me to tears, Alistair”. The message Attenborough conveys is both heartfelt, and shocking. In my opinion, there is no better person than Attenborough to spread this message, after several generations have tuned in to hit series’ such as Frozen Planet and Life, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, both of which have had a sequel series within the last five years. Attenborough has come to represent the subject of natural history within British culture, having worked within documentary making at some level since 1954.
The audience is taken on an interesting journey within the first half of the documentary of Attenborough’s career, which uses old clips from the time, with narration from the 2020 Attenborough played over the top. I found this use of older clips very effective in showing the change that Attenborough must have experienced, not just in the natural world, but in the format of his career as a presenter and naturalist. Alongside the clips, the documentary is occasionally intersected by a countdown screen, which updates alongside the time period Attenborough is discussing. On this screen, there is select information, which includes the world human population, carbon in the atmosphere, and remaining wilderness. Between the longer sections of narrative description by Attenborough, these intersecting screens show the development across his career. Unfortunately, as you might expect, the amount of carbon and population dramatically increase, as the remaining wilderness decreases.
Outside of the emotional impact of this film, there is also a lot to learn from the documentary in terms of factual information. A lot of information is presented within A Life on Our Planet. Some of these facts will make any audience member feel uncomfortable – Attenborough states that wildlife populations across the globe have more than halved since the beginning of his career. Attenborough looks at various adverse effects of climate change on the natural world; animals such as coral reefs dying as the ocean acidifies, a global average temperature rise of 4oc, release of methane through the thawing of frozen soil, mass animal extinction, and millions of humans rendered homeless. Attenborough concludes this by saying “this is a series of one-way doors, bringing irreversible change”. Attenborough works hard in his description to tell the audience that this disaster has already started, is happening right now, and will only get worse.
Attenborough says in the conclusion of the documentary, “It’s now apparent it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a chance to manage our impact. Manage our impact, and once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so”. As the documentary finishes, Attenborough at least partly lifts the audience out of the depressive tone of the middle of the documentary, by stating that with the will to act there is still time to make a difference. I felt that the final message of this documentary was perhaps understated compared to the description of the doom and gloom aspects of the issue, but understandably, Attenborough has the intelligence not to end the film on an entirely sour note.
I knew that Attenborough’s breakdown of climate change, where he would make a heartfelt speech directly to the audience was coming, but it still affected me. It certainly wasn’t the first time Attenborough has spoken openly about man-made effects on the environment, or about climate change as a topic, but it might be the first time that they had been done together so effectively by Attenborough. One of Attenborough’s strengths in creating this message is his overwhelming popularity, reaching audiences that some activists might not. Unfortunately, while Attenborough can reach a wide audience, he cannot create change on his own, that would require governmental action. It will be interesting to see, however, once this documentary has been viewed and digested by mass audiences, whether it will have a big effect on the climate change discussion (akin to An Inconvenient Truth). Only time can tell.