BBC's Planet Earth II - Episode 1 "Islands" - Review

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This clip was taken from the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

Nature documentaries are well within the interests of the Plant-Smart Living family. We don't watch a whole lot of television, but when we do, it is great to have something very entertaining and even educational to enjoy. BBC's Planet Earth series, all of which is available on Netflix if you are a subscriber or in DVD or Blu-Ray form, was a groundbreaking nature documentary series that set the standard for future documentaries like it. I am not sure that any have ever come close.

I was very excited to hear that Planet Earth II was going to start on TV - a whole 10 years later than the original series. Some great promo videos were released to get people excited, and they certainly grabbed my attention.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago when I got to catch the opening episode - "Islands."

"Islands" Review

Opening with David Attenborough's trademark narrative dialogue, but from the perspective of a hot air balloon over snow capped mountains was quite entertaining. The sequence quickly transitions to the first in a series of islands on display - and the unique, sometimes comical and sometimes unfortunate, inhabitants.

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The first of these is a pygmy three-toed sloth who, in leisurely fashion, is searching for a potential mate on the island of Escudo based on hearing a distinct call in the distance. This opening act drew my attention wholeheartedly, and reminded me substantially why I enjoy Planet Earth

The lowly sloth is granted a story that anthropomorphizes him. That is - the narrator does a good job of humanizing this animal, which in turn allows us as the viewer to empathize with him. The sloth begins to feel like a part of our family, perhaps even like a great pet (like my little guy Bailey!). I began to root for him, hoping that he would succeed, and felt a little bad inside when he did not initially. Gladly, I wasn't let down this time, as he eventually found his lover in the rugged island wilderness.

I went through this experience over and over again as the episode progressed and followed the journeys of many unique characters and creatures.

The subtle sense of storytelling is what has truly grasped my attention. Not to mention, the unique perspective of the planet that can only really be captured through a camera and well edited television. After all, most of us will never get the chance to see many of these animals or landscapes in person. Some of these regions are even quite extreme, and hardly accessible, as they are not built up by human beings, such as the last island featuring the penguin inhabitants: Zavadovski island. 

I found no section of this episode dull. All was unique to witness, and was displayed in a manner that made every scene interesting and, at times, breathtaking. 

An absolute standout is the segment regarding baby iguanas as they are birthed in an inhospitable, perilous beach with hidden predatory racer snakes. It is a sequence that deserves a warning before watching, as it parallels intense moments of conflict and even death that fictional drama shows, like HBO's Game of Thrones, showcases. This sequence stands out because of it's drama and it's reality - all packaged into one. We see the unfortunate and sad deaths of baby iguanas at the fangs of these snakes, but are also forced to reflect on how these snakes need to survive too. But, again taking on such a human character, we find ourselves in the penultimate scene where we follow a young iguana and it's race for survival, only to be stopped, yet somehow manage and escape to freedom and a journey towards a full adult-life. 

It is a moment like this where I realize - I have never thought so much about a baby iguana, not to mention felt a real emotional response for one. I love animals, but so many of them are hidden away in remote places of the Earth. Planet Earth II is providing an opportunity to see the lives of these animals from the comfort of our living rooms. 

Other standout moments include insight into the lives of komodo dragons, and their intense waring sensibilities as they fight for dominance and mates. I struggle to see how a cameraman could get so close to the action without becoming dinner himself. The march of the red crabs is also another spectacle that is hard to forget! 

The last sequence of the penguins provides an interesting view on these mammals that we often just view as cute and fluffy. To see how much they endure to raise their young is intense, and could inspire some humans to consider treating their children in a similar manner. 

For those who stick around, at the end their is a nice segment called "Planet Earth Diaries" where we actually get to see how the camera operators and crew get some of the shots they do. It is quite eye opening and inspiring, and well worth taking a look, especially if you enjoy the great camera work on display! 

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Final Verdict

I can't think of a nature documentary in recent memory that managed to capture the scale of the world it explored so well. From small and fragile moments, as seen with birds and monkeys attempting to survive in their little patch of the planet, to the more grandiose views of entire islands from the skies, it is difficult for me to get some of the images out of my head. 

As a television show, the heart of it lies in the cinematography, sense of storytelling, and entertainment value. Planet Earth II's season opener has all of these in spades. 

“Visually, where Planet Earth took an almost God-like perspective and said ‘Let’s look down on the Earth and see the scale of the planet’, what Planet Earth II is doing is saying ‘Let’s get ourselves into the lives of the animals, and see it from their perspective,’” is how producer Mike Gunton explained it, and that’s exactly what we get. 

I look forward to getting a glimpse at the next episode of Planet Earth II where we head towards the "Mountains." 

If you enjoy Planet Earth, you can purchase the complete original series on Amazon. You can also pre-order Planet Earth II, which is already beginning to shape up as another great series in and of itself!