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The BBC Earth crew continues their successful run of spectacular high definition nature documentaries with Life. Unfortunately, following Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Life of Birds, Life of Mammals, etc, there apparently isn’t a lot of nature left to film on this planet. This release overlaps thematically with some of those other releases, but unlike the footage BBC has sold off to Disney for re-editing (see Earth and Oceans), the amazing fetes captured for this collection are original, and new. These US release episodes feature slightly shorter runtimes than their UK counterparts, and some awkward commercial break fade-outs.

Life
Challenges of Life starts things off. This is an effective introductory episode, but most of the stories contained within are covered again throughout the rest of the series. Perhaps ten fully filled-out episodes rather than ten and a half that fall just short next time? Reptiles and Amphibians comes next, and was my my favourite section. The footage includes two adorable, postage stamp sized toads from different sides of the world who cannot hop, and have developed the ability to fall incredible distances without dying (one folds up and literally bounces down sheer rock faces). Also featured is a male garter snake who wakes up a few days late from hibernation, and pretends to be a female in order steals the body heat of other males, who don’t seem to notice or care they aren’t rubbing up against a ladysnake. Mammals covers a lot of ground already covered during Planet Earth and The Life of Mammals, including the usual oft-told, always depressing tale of a mother polar bear and her cubs (who likely died of starvation shortly after filming stopped). The giant fruit bat section is definitely an exciting bit of nature on film, however, and the hyenas that take brutal revenge on a trio of lions certainly gets the vigilante blood boiling.

Disc two starts with Fish, which isn’t the best chapter, but it’s probably the most consistently visually appealing. This particular selection of fish stories features more rock ‘em, sock ‘em fights than most oceanic documentaries, and it’s difficult to argue with a good smack down. The whole of the mudskipper section is also hard to resist, as the fish themselves are eternally funny to look at no matter what they’re doing. I giggled through most of this episode, and was continuously reminded of Miyazaki’s Ponyo. Birds is probably the most unremarkable part of the collection, assume one’s already sat through all of The Life of Birds. The producers do their best to find new species to cover, but the subject was rather driven into the ground (though this is the fourth time I’ve seen those same bird dances in a BBC property). The chinstrap penguin march is a definitely highlight, visually speaking, and the bower bird’s interior decorating, which hasn’t been filmed before, is incredibly adorable. Insects is another of the collection’s better entries, and probably the most educational for me personally. The chauvinistic dung beetle that tosses its mate off a tree after he’s done mating might be the funniest thing I’ve seen in months.

Life
Hunters and Hunted benefits from being more of a miscellaneous catch-all, but also recycles a little too much footage from the other sections to fill out the time. The Ethiopian wolf footage is probably the most valuable bit, simply because the animals are so rare, and the stoat and ground squirrel scenes are the most entertaining. Creatures of the Deep is visually pleasing, and delightfully alien, but isn’t as informative as I’d prefer, probably because I’ve already seen Blue Planet, and just about every other sea documentary available (I’m a little obsessed with the concept). The final part, which covers the choral reef, picks things up a bit with footage of some adorably odd looking creatures with a penchant for eating each other. The third disc ends with Plants, which is less instantly enticing than the fauna based episodes, but thanks to spectacular time-lapse photography, the section isn’t nearly as uneventful as most viewers might assume. As a simple, visually hypnotizing technical achievement Plants is the set’s most innovative chapter. Unfortunately, the behind the scenes footage reveals that there were digital and practical effects used to make the more complex shots work, which ruins a bit of the magic, even if the effort was still gargantuan.

The fourth and final disc starts with Primates, which also suffers from nature documentary oversaturation. I’ve personally seen basically the same stories of brutal baboon family unites, macaques warming themselves in hot-springs, gorillas chilling and eating large amounts of food, and gibbons swinging through trees a couple dozen times on the Discovery Channel. It’s certainly not a waste of time by any means, it’s just not as wildly educational as some of the others. The tarsier sequence is a highlight, and I don’t believe anyone has ever caught baboons hunting for muscles and shark eggs in high definition before. The Making Of Life completes the series with a collection of behind the scenes footage, some of it culled from the making-of featurettes available on each disc. The section captures the boredom of waiting for wild animals to do something spectacular without coaxing (without being boring itself), the preparation involved in filming in remote and unwelcoming areas of the world, and the danger the crew often inadvertently put themselves in. The moral conundrums of remaining neutral on a given situation are also covered, which is the ongoing question when it comes to nature documentation.

Life

Video


It’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that BBC Earth releases are going to be among the most incredible looking discs in any collection, so I’m sure no one will be surprised when I verify that this four disc set looks fantastic. The video is, however, not perfect. Problems arise early with the encoding. The back panel states that the video is of the 1080i variety, and apparently the original UK version release is 1080p. I didn’t notice any of the usual signs of interlacing, such as combing effects, but I don’t have the 1080p version to compare frame rates, and don’t have a ‘smoothing’ mode on my particular set. The closest the transfer gets to genuine, eyeball snagging shortcomings are likely also the fault of either my set, and/or the original source material. Some of the most expansive helicopter shots are a bit over-sharpened, and on my 1080p, but not top-of-the-line set these shots feature some noticeable loss of detail and edge-enhancement. I’ve seen enough BBC specials used for television store demo models to know that shots like these can make the difference between the best and worst sets, so I’m going to give the transfer the benefit of the doubt on this one (some of the meerkat footage seems to be filmed using non-HD cameras, as does a lot of the behind the scenes footage presented during The Making Of Life). The only other ‘problem’ shots are the super-super slow motion shots, which apparently still must be shot on traditional film. These shots feature plenty of detail, but more grain, less vibrant colours, and a few shutter effects that may be a result of the interlaced encoding.

Anyone not looking for interlacing effects will likely be satisfied enough with this release to enjoy the transfer’s finer moments. The big highlights include are usually of the extreme close-ups variety. My favourite bits all include chameleons, which are mostly found on the Reptile section. These little critters feature fine, multi-layered textures, they can change their vibrant skin colour, and they live in incredibly lush environments. As stated in the series review section, most viewers will probably recycle the Fish section of the second disc through their player the most often, and I can’t fault anyone for preferring these cool blues to my preferred lush greens. The Birds section certainly isn’t hard on the eyes either, though the incredible detail is sometimes revolting during the Insects section (I have a bit of a phobia).

Life

Audio


Each episode in this four disc collection comes fitted with a lovely DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The majority of the sound on these shows is, believe it or not, not captured on site, but the sound designers create some smashing post-production magic. The sound is normally as natural, and ‘invisible’ as possible, as to not draw attention to the fact that the sound isn’t always genuine, but there are some funny standouts, such as ricocheting bullets and bouncing springs. The Insects section features some particularly impressive folley work that work very well directionally over the front channels. The deep sea and plant related time-lapse footage is augmented with some truly grotesque crawling critter sounds throughout the channels. Real source audio highlights include the awesome chest rumble of a caiman, the surreal thrust of overhead waves, the chortling of meerkats, and the untamed screaming of monkeys. The music is more eclectic this time around, though it still features plenty of bland, ‘inspirational’ brand of ‘world’ music. Often the music takes its cue from narrative film scoring, and the appropriate genre is applied (clangy electric guitars for the western landscapes, for example).

However, media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s narration is occasionally terrible, and otherwise entirely unremarkable. I, like most, would prefer Sir David Attenborough’s original narration on an alternate track myself, which is available on an alternate Blu-ray and DVD version. Apparently there are small differences between the US and UK edits, which would make alternate tracks difficult, but I still find the lack of choice on a single release suspect. Video quality and encoding issues aside, readers really should get the Attenborough version instead just for the narration. There is the option to turn Oprah off, which is nice for those that have already seen the series, and would prefer a bit of background noise to zone-out to, but narration is usually necessary for a nature documentary release, and until you know what you’re watching you’ll probably be want some guidance. The music and effects track is only available in Dolby Surround, unfortunately.

Extras


The first three discs feature BBC Channel ‘Making-of’ featurettes. These featurettes, which were included at the tail end of each original UK release, are all presented in 1080i video (not as good or consistent as the series proper), and DTS-HD Master Audio sound (actually a hair louder than the series proper, actually). They are hosted by Sir David Attenborough, and mostly cover the intense hardships the BBC film crews had to deal with to capture the incredible images on film. These are consistently entertaining, often even more entertaining than the Life series itself, but they are short, each running about 11:00 apiece. There is some overlap between these and the final official episode of the series, so I’d recommend watching these over the final section of the set, if not for anything more than Attenborough’s narration. The fourth disc in the set also features a collection of seven deleted scenes (18:10, HD), culled from throughout the episodes.

Life

Overall


Life would often be better entitled Evolution(Nature, God) is a Jerk[/i]. I’m We’re meant to be awed by the complexity of obscure creature’s life cycles (and usually we are), but as the complexity builds, so does frustration. Survival is way too involved process for some of these poor creatures. There’s this poor frog, seen in the opening segment, that carries each of her up to five tadpoles, one by one, to different water deposits on the tops leaf clusters in the Amazon rainforests. If they share a pool they’ll eat each other. Then she make the same five trips again, every day, to lay unfertilized eggs in the pools, which the tadpoles then feed on. Really Evolution/Nature/God? She has to do this every day? All the way up in those trees? That’s just kind of a dick move.

And Speaking of wrongful moves, I’m going to go out of my way to once again recommend fans of BCC Earth’s other documentaries go out of their way to get the UK version of Life, which is available on most major online outlets for the same, or at least a similar price. I have not compared the two versions directly, but experience tells me original edits are preferable, as is David Attenborough to Oprah Winfrey (who really isn’t cut out for this kind of narration). Readers with really nice set-ups will also likely notice a difference between this 1080i release, and the 1080p original cuts, even if I didn’t.

*Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.


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