You’d be forgiven for believing “Our Planet” is just another “Planet Earth.” Not only is it from the same creator as BBC America’s landmark series in Alistair Fothergill, but it is also narrated by the soothing tones of David Attenborough, the voice that has guided “Planet Earth” and its oceanic sister show “Blue Planet” for years. (Other narrators include Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, tapping in to guide Spanish language viewers in Latin America and Spain, respectively.) And just like “Planet Earth,” the eight episodes of “Our Planet” focuses on specific environments — from forests to high seas to “frozen worlds” and beyond — with gorgeous, jawdropping shots of the Earth’s most beautiful, intriguing, inscrutable, surprising wildlife.
But there is one crucial, stark difference between “Planet Earth” and “Our Planet” that makes the latter a more necessary update than initially meets the eye. While “Planet Earth II” wove the increasingly undeniable evidence of climate change into its fabric, particularly with its stunning and ambitious “Cities” episode, “Our Planet” makes it unavoidable by shoving it front and center. If “Planet Earth” is a celebration of the world, “Our Planet” is a call to arms to save it before it’s too late.
Every episode opens with a satellite shot of Earth from the moon as Attenborough reminds us that the human population has doubled in the last 50 years alone, and that the planet has been in dire straits ever since. Every episode opens and closes with pressing facts about just how devastating the damage truly is. An astonishing sequence in the premiere (the all-encompassing “One Planet”) shows enormous glaciers crashing into the sea. The “Coastal Seas” episode reveals stark before and after shots of thriving coral life versus the bleached wastelands they’ve become. Polar bears cross ice as Attenborough gravely intones that “their world is literally melting beneath their feet.”
Make no mistake: the mission statement of “Our Planet” is to make its viewers think beyond the gorgeous images onscreen to what it will take to keep their subjects alive. The series directs viewers to a website in order to find out more about how they can take steps to save these climes, via a partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature. (It’s worth noting that “Our Planet” has been in production for three years and therefore produced before Buzzfeed published extremely alarming allegations in March of WWF working with organizations that perpetuated human rights abuses, but the partnership nonetheless deserves further questioning in the wake of them.) It encourages viewers to consider their own roles in the continuing destruction of the Earth’s natural resources, and given Netflix’s singularly large international reach, it’s not unfeasible to imagine that it could make a difference.
So while “Our Planet” revels in the remaining glory of the Earth, it’s always upfront about that critical “remaining” aspect of it. Facts are facts, and the series simply isn’t interested in pretending otherwise or softening that harsh truth. Sure, it will occasionally reveals some concrete examples of how wildlife has, despite all odds, taken a stand against the onslaught of climate change, as with a joyous colony of humpback whales and an unlikely resurgence of life in Chernobyl, of all places. But for the most part, “Our Planet” is so frank about just how badly humans have screwed over the Earth that it’s genuinely startling. No matter how huge the crisis, it’s rare to see it laid out in such unsparing terms. Every time Attenborough pivots from a pleasant description of how some animals live and love in the wild to how they’re living on borrowed time, it’s a jarring transition as excruciating as it is refreshing.
Docuseries, 60 mins. Premieres Friday, April 5 on Netflix.