Now well into his 90s, natural scientist and broadcasting legend David Attenborough begs the rest of humanity to fix their hearts or die.
“I am David Attenborough, and I am 93.” So begins the latest (and potentially last) documentary that bears his name, as the revered English broadcaster and natural historian looks into the camera and reintroduces himself for the umpteenth time with all of his usual warmth and honesty. But such a pointed hello is enough to establish that “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” will be a bit different than “David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities,” “David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies 3D,” and the scads of ecologically minded (and more generically titled) shows graced with his awe, curiosity, and brandied speaking voice.
For one thing, Attenborough is onscreen throughout much of this urgent film, which might surprise viewers who know him as the disembodied narrator of the epic nature series he’s made with the BBC in the Blu-ray era. Beyond that, it’s striking how Attenborough isn’t just playing his typical role as the erudite commentator with a contagious enthusiasm for life on Earth in all its forms. The man is still too humble to let himself become the subject at hand, but now — toward the end of his own natural life — Attenborough is showing us the world as he sees it. For all of the incredible things he’s captured with his camera, “A Life on Our Planet” is perhaps the first time Attenborough is acting as its lens.
He declares from the start that this film is his “witness testimony,” and what follows is a familiar documentary about “humanity’s blind assault on our planet” wrapped in an unusually emotional plea for us to look at the natural world through the eyes of someone who’s cherished it for almost 100 years, and wants us to care for it after he’s gone. “A Life on Our Planet” is as much a love story, a requiem, and a final request as it is a film about deforestation, overfishing, exponential population grown, and the various other culprits that have led to the crisis we all live in today. If you’ve been numbed by the scale and hopelessness of other documentaries about the various horrors we’ve inflicted upon the Holocene, perhaps the personal touch of this one will shake you into action before it’s too late.Too paralyzed by the overwhelming scope of climate change to help save the planet? Just think about how disappointed Attenborough would be if you did nothing.
As a piece of environmental activism, “A Life on Our Planet” is almost objectively pure, and none of the quibbles to be had with it as a piece of cinema can detract from the good this film will do on a platform of Netflix’s size. But if this is the most personal film in which Attenborough has ever appeared, it’s also — in a way that could lessen the critical impact of its message — not quite personal enough. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say this documentary isn’t quite sure how to square the idea that it isn’t about Attenborough with the empirical reality that it is.
“A Life on Our Planet” is a lovely sprint through the extraordinary life in question (quick glimpses of archival footage show a young and undaunted Attenborough journeying to the rainforests of Borneo and other remarkable spots around a black-and-white globe), and comprehensive as a point-by-point rundown of why “the natural world is fading” (even if much of the hyper-crisp “how did they shoot that?” wildlife action feels like leftover b-roll from “Planet Earth” and the various other shows produced by Alastair Fothergill). But Fothergill and his co-directors Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey aren’t able to thread the personal together with the existential in a way that strengthens them both. Yes, there will be time to make a more definitive film about Attenborough in the future (no matter how imperiled that future may be), but it’s hard to shake the feeling his plea for the here and now would have been even more effective had this film leaned harder into its star’s firsthand experience, and complemented his wisdom and concern with a clearer sense of how he came to embody them.
The uncertain dynamic between “A Life on Our Planet” and its lead character is on display from the start, as the film opens (and closes) with footage of Attenborough walking through the ruins of Chernobyl. The symbolic value of the site is self-evident — and the choice to use it as a framing device helps focus the documentary’s attention on the catastrophic hubris of human error — but such an extreme flashpoint leaves us on wobbly ground for the more intimate terrain that follows. The film is at its best when it more explicitly tethers itself to its host, and measures the changes in the planet’s biodiversity against the span of a single lifetime. A running tally of the human population and its carbon footprint helps keep score of how lopsided the natural balance has become in the brief time (relatively speaking) that’s passed since Attenborough was a boy, and it’s remarkable to see how fast the stability of the Holocene era gave way to the chaos we see before us today. From a human perspective, this seismic change is happening in slow-motion, and Attenborough implies that it would seem more urgent to us if we could zoom out far enough to appreciate it the destruction of our world as the Chernobyl-like meltdown that it is.
The rest of the film takes a more granular approach, in the hopes that the gradual accumulation of ecological atrocities will crescendo toward a deafening call to action. Attenborough — still as sharp and charismatic as ever — wanders from crisis to crisis as he talks us through some of the many different ways that humanity is replacing the wild with the tame (he’s especially critical of over-farming, deforestation, and humanity’s general imperialism over a world that it has pursued to extinction). The horrors naturally (or unnaturally) feed into each other, but the documentary’s bullet-point approach to these topics and the imagery that accompanies them result in a disjointed spiel that doesn’t gain momentum so much as it enumerates various sources of resentment. A small handful of highlights stick out from the lecture (specifically the understandable violence of Attenborough’s narration, and the way that he pronounces the word “orangutan”), but most of them are subsumed into a general miasma of greed and selfishness.
He’s almost too persuasive. When Attenborough turns a corner in the last 25 minutes and pivots to his prescription for what we might do to turn things around, the swerve toward hope is whiplash-inducing. Attenborough’s advice is broad to the point of being unhelpful (use natural energy, consider veganism, look for other ways to raise our standard of living without increasing our impact, etc.), but the specifics of an 83-minute movie were never going to be the key takeaways from a film about a 93-year (now 94) life. It’s not Attenborough’s instructions that “A Life on Our Planet” wants to bundle up into a legacy, it’s his ethos — his scientific belief that we need to look beyond ourselves and internalize the fact that “a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too.” Our planet is a finite place, and our lives on it are finite, too. The twilight of Attenborough’s time here speaks to that truth so beautifully that you wish this documentary had more to say about it.
“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Sunday, October 4.