Review: Our Planet, Netflix (Narrated by David Attenborough, Produced by Alastair Fothergill)

[1] In Stewart Herman’s reviews of The End of Ice and The Uninhabitable Earth he writes of our “spirits yearn[ing] to grasp the totality of what climate change means for us.”  In truth, it is probably ‘ungraspable.’  But we do yearn and we must try.  Our survival depends on it. As we work to study, analyze, theologize, and comprehend this complex planet, our intellects may reach into overdrive.  Feeling overwhelmed, perhaps leaning toward despair, we want to shut down and simply take a walk.  Or (dare I say it?) watch TV.   Paradoxically, today I will recommend TV.

[2] Our Planet, the Netflix series from David Attenborough offers an immersion into the wonders of our planet as well as the perils destroying it.  While stimulating our brains, the documentary’s real brilliance shines forth in its capacity to meld solid science with visual and aural sensory absorption that opens our hearts. We are enveloped in the sights and sounds of a stunning and fragile world that, to-date, still sustains us.

[3] The eight episodes of Our Planet highlight specific environments such as deserts, forests, and seas.  These journeys take us from vast and jaw-droppingly gorgeous terrain to the heartbreaking intimacy of a tiny bird’s fight to survive.  With Attenborough’s soothing voice, the series quietly and compelling conveys the unrelenting truth that these realities, the vast and the intimate, are connected. They depend on each other to survive and each is eroding.

[4] The series uses narrative form, stunning visuals and startling facts to tell the story of how the Earth operates.  The effect is hard-hitting, but the approach is not aggressive.  In addition to breathtaking beauty, there is much joy and even hilarity (e.g. the dancing birds in episode One).  We also experience nail-biting suspense as we get to know the animals struggling to reach receding waters and we find ourselves praying that they will make it.  Our Planet is evocative both intellectually and emotionally as we increasingly understand and deeply feel our connection to these creatures and this earth.  And we also feel and know our complicity in their fate.

[5] This tension between beauty and the discomfort of complicity pushes toward the question of how we should live in a world that sustains us while we are destroying it.  What will it take to keep it alive? This documentary moves beyond Attenborough’s previous work in that it puts climate change at the fore.  The facts and visuals leave no doubt about the devastation and its implications for the earth and every living thing, including humans.  The series is a stunning and poignant plea to save the planet.

[6] Attenborough is practical.  He urges viewers to consider their own roles and take important action.   The documentary directs viewers to a website for guidance.

[7] Our Planet is ideal for discussion groups or personal use.  Viewers at any academic level will find it simultaneously rewarding and challenging. This is an unsparing work that immerses us in visual splendor and staggering loss. We may need all of our senses to begin to grasp the ‘ungraspable.’ Attenborough’s multi-sensory work adds an important dimension to the ethical task we face.  TV is usually no substitute for taking a walk, but this may be the exception.

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.