Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: "Earth"

Before computers made anything possible, film audiences used to react to spectacular special effects or stunts by exclaiming, "How'd they do that?!" For the amazing new documentary "Earth" -- which uses no digital trickery of any kind -- the quandary becomes, "How'd they get that?!"

The wildlife footage is not only stunning, it bedazzles the audience by making us wonder how so many spectacular moments were captured. The film puts us in the middle of a deadly chase between a cheetah and antelope, a battle between a starving polar bear and walruses, into a swirling cloud of tiny fish being fed upon by seals, amidst a torturous desert convoy of elephants, and sends us reeling over titanic waterfalls.

Based on the footage, you would think the filmmakers possessed an army of remote-controlled cameras scattered all over the globe, recording constantly to capture these fleeting moments of exhilaration. But no, some outtakes over the end credits show us how they climbed into hot air balloons, hid out in frozen cabins, and dove into oceans teeming with sharks to get this amazing footage.

"Earth" is actually a feature-length compilation of the TV show "Planet Earth," directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. It's being released all over the globe with different narrators for each country (James Earle Jones does the honor for the U.S. version).

If there's a weakness to the endeavor, it's the lack of a narrative theme like we had in "March of the Penguins," with the squat birds' epic journey to gather food and protect their young. "Earth" attempts to do this by concentrating on three families of animals: a humpback whale and her calf; a polar bear family with two cubs; and an elephant mother and her young. We watch them on their journeys of migration and finding prey.

But these are by no means the only subjects of the documentary, which also glimpses dozens of other species. There are birds of paradise pimped out in plumage to attract a mate, baby ducks in free-fall, and the incongruous sight of monkeys wading chest-deep through the floodplains. As entertaining as all these asides are, they serve to detract from the theme of animal families nurturing their young.

As a result, the movie feels a bit fractured, like we're watching an educational nature documentary with no unifying point. The film would have been stronger by focusing on the three families, and only including other material as it relates to their quests.

Still, even with its slightly rambling nature, the power of the movie's spectacle is impressive.

"Earth" also touches on how climate change is affecting these animals -- for example, the father bear gets caught out in open ocean because the sea ice is thawing earlier and earlier. These events are presented factually, without bias or histrionics -- an all-too rare occurrence in the global warming debate.

3 stars out of four

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