“Blue Planet II” premieres this weekend, just one year after its sister series “Planet Earth II” returned for a second, triumphant series. But while “Planet Earth II” followed “Planet Earth” by a decade, “The Blue Planet,” the original installment of the BBC Natural History Unit’s docuseries about the oceans, debuted almost 20 years ago in 2001. Needless to say, the technology available to filmmakers covering the natural world has made leaps and bounds since then. As the producers told Variety, the gear used in “Blue Planet II” was crucial for getting the intimate footage of some of the world’s most remote and elusive animals. The producers developed their own camera system and lenses, shot in lush 4K, and used a massive bubble-like megadome lens to immerse the viewer half-in and half-out of the water, that beautifully liminal space on the surface. This equipment is on top of the hundreds of human hours spent underwater hanging out with sea creatures — discovering the relevant animal behaviors, finding them, and then taking all that tech down to film.
But even if you are braced for a glorious production, “Blue Planet II” is likely to take your breath away. At the time I saw “Planet Earth II,” it seemed as if that was the pinnacle of nature documentary filmmaking. “Blue Planet II” has quite surpassed it. Perhaps this is due to the essential, romantic mystery that humans have ascribed to the ocean for most of recorded history — a mystery that bears out, considering that the oceans are still 95% unexplored, and less understood than the surface of Mars, despite occupying 70% of our planet’s real estate. Or, because there are seemingly infinite ways to dramatically intermingle light and water, whether that is bioluminescent bacteria twinkling like stars in the deep ocean or the way rays of sunlight filter through surface waters to illumine vast kelp forests. To study the oceans is to study the weather, too, so at times “Blue Planet II” zooms out so far, you watch hurricanes bloom and dissipate in the Atlantic Ocean.
Whatever the reason, “Blue Planet II” is jaw-dropping. Even viewed on my laptop, the cinematography was arresting. The images are so clear — and so strange, because the ocean is really weird — that they are almost too good to be true, like a CGI dreamscape of an alien world. The crew managed to strap cameras onto whales and worm their lenses into the hidey-hole nests of puffins; they capture sea lions teaming up to trap tuna, a whale shark the size of a “small aircraft,” and humpback whales breaching after a well-earned meal of plankton. “Blue Planet II” is a vehicle designed for wonder, and it is practically impossible to not be awed — by the size and scale of the ocean, by its biodiversity, by the surprisingly universal efforts that animals go through to defend and raise their precious offspring. “Blue Planet II,” like “Planet Earth II” before it, is narrated by David Attenborough, and thanks to his combination of droll amusement and matter-of-fact framing of tragedies, he draws the viewer into the individual dramas of animals that you couldn’t name just five minutes before. It is both relatable and astonishing, how much birds and fish seem to worry about the same things that we and our neighbors do. One irritated Garibaldi fish has to keep clearing pesky sea urchins off his little plot of algae, with all the tedious resignation of a father chasing off squirrels. In the episode “Coasts,” a couple of leaping blennies spot each other at a local watering hole and make fishy eyes at each other, prompting the male to turn black and wave his orange crest — his form of flirting. She’s interested, but they keep getting interrupted by — what else? — the incoming waves, which force them to jump to higher rocks.
In addition to visiting with new creatures, the documentarians pursue new stories on animals that have already been covered in earlier series: sea turtles, penguins, otters, albatrosses. And in what is probably my particular favorite segment in “Green Seas,” an especially ornery octopus female runs eight-armed rings around her predators — hiding under shells, slipping under rocks, and in one amazing sequence, suffocating a shark until it leaves her alone.
This intimacy with the personality quirks of individual animals is especially heart-rending when it comes to what is the other shoe, so to speak, of every episode of “Blue Planet II” — the devastating effects that human life have had on the planet’s oceans, in ways we are still beginning to understand. It gets so that every time Attenborough begins a sentence with “but,” letting the pause after it linger, the viewer is primed for what happens next: A window into how climate change has altered the lives of these magnificent creatures, in ways that are new and surprising. In the opening episode “One Ocean,” we watch walruses battle each other for space on a shrinking ice floe; later, we see baby sea turtles stuck in oceanic debris, struggling vainly to escape. Even more than “Planet Earth II,” “Blue Planet II” is no-holds-barred: The fourth episode “Big Blue” ends on the wrenching story of a mother pilot whale unable to accept the fact that her infant has died, and so is carrying it around with her, even though it is several days gone. Attenborough suggests that the infant has died because of the plastic that has become part of the pilot whales’ diet; if not a fetal abnormality, then possibly because the mother’s milk has become contaminated. It’s a scene of communal mourning, captured both visually and aurally, that is very hard to forget.
The mission of “Blue Planet II,” like the other BBC Earth productions, appears to be to reveal the world in all its majesty. Instead of simply exhorting the Right Thing to Do, the show strives to create the awe and interest required to not just care about the fate of the world’s oceans, but to grow to love them, too. It’s working.