Throughout his astonishing career, Sir David Attenborough has become known for many remarkable things, but perhaps one of his most iconic trademarks is the soothing nature of his voice. Surely one of the most reassuring sounds in broadcasting history, those comforting tones have soundtracked a huge range of wondrous nature programmes over more than six decades, delighting millions of viewers around the world. So when Attenborough looks straight into a camera, and using those same tones tells us in no uncertain terms that we’ve destroyed our planet, it’s difficult not to be uniquely moved.
This is just one of many striking, sobering scenes in A Life On Our Planet, Attenborough’s extraordinary new documentary film which is quite unlike anything the broadcaster has made in his decades long career. At once a terrifying condemnation of the human destruction and decline of biodiversity on our planet, but also a hopeful and inspirational manifesto for the steps that can still be taken to mitigate the crisis, the documentary should be considered mandatory viewing.
The film starts with Attenborough in Chernobyl, the site of the infamous nuclear disaster. As the naturalist wanders amid the desolate landscape he gives a stern warning: the destruction witnessed here might be terrible, but it is nothing compared to what may lie in store for huge swathes of Earth in mere decades if urgent action is not taken.
From that point onwards the film is split into two distinct parts. The first is Attenborough’s witness statement, as he looks back on his career and details the damage he’s seen develop at a truly alarming rate since he first started making programmes in the early ’50s. Throughout this section of the film, increasingly distressing statistics frequently appear on screen, showing the changes in population growth and carbon present in out atmosphere over time and putting the emergency into sharp focus.
Of course a retrospective of a national treasure like Attenborough would normally be a joyous affair – a chance to reminisce and celebrate a wonderful broadcaster’s achievements. But while there are several moments of awe as we trawl through the archive -including remarkable footage of a much younger Attenborough meeting hunter-gatherers – it is quite deliberately the distressing images that stick out. We see a lone Orangutan struggling to survive in the dwindling Borneo rainforest, coral reefs turning white (from “wonderland into wasteland”) and all too familiar images of the polar ice caps melting. These sorts of images might not be new to many viewers, but I beg anyone not to be moved as Attenborough discusses them in the context of his life and career.
The second part of the film takes on a rather different tone, and it’s here where Attenborough’s famous reassurance can be found – though without sacrificing the sense of urgency that characterised much of the film’s opening. Pointing to examples such as the fast rate of reforesting in Costa Rica, the emergence of no-fishing zones designated by the UN and the incredibly successful sustainable farming practises of the Netherlands, Attenborough offers a number of ways in which the bleak outlook can still be markedly improved.
Meanwhile near the documentary’s end, Attenborough makes a statement that is bound to make people take note: when we talk about saving our planet, he says, what we’re really talking about is saving humanity. Our planet has survived five mass extinctions before, and it will be around for a long time after it becomes inhospitable for humans too – the early signs of wildlife returning to Chernobyl is testament to that. Maybe if we reframed the crisis as a chance to save ourselves, people would be more desperate to fight for the improvements outlined above.
It is perhaps the blending of its two sections that is the documentary’s greatest strength: it does not mince its words when it comes to getting across the urgency of our present situation, the doom and gloom that could be on the horizon in a matter of decades, but it also remembers to offer viewers hope. If the documentary had consisted of nothing but a castigation of human destruction and a gloomy forecast for our future it would have fostered nothing but a sense of helplessness. Equally, if there was just optimism and reassurance on offer it would have inspired only complacency. It is the combination of these two factors which can truly act as a rallying call to the millions who will hopefully watch this powerful and poignant mission statement from a man who remains the best in the business.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is showing in cinemas for one day only on 28th September, featuring an exclusive conversation with Sir David Attenborough & Sir Michael Palin. The film will then launch on Netflix globally on 4th October. Find out what else to watch with our TV Guide and our handy list of the best movies on Netflix to binge.