David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet - Review

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Nicola Kenny reviews the most recent film by the famed naturalist and broadcaster as he looks back on his life while delivering a critical warning as well as a message of hope for the future.

A series of bleak and ghost-like images in the abandoned remains of Chernobyl seems like an unlikely place for a David Attenborough documentary to open. The film serves as Attenborough’s witness statement for the natural world and a vision for its future. Previous work and activism from the celebrated naturalist, now in his 94th year, has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in starting a global conversation about our relationship with the natural world, inciting change, and making a difference. On this occasion, however, there is a notable change in tone and an even greater sense of urgency. 

This documentary looks back at Attenborough’s incredible life. Told through beautiful archive footage and a compelling narrative, we are witness to a celebration of nature in all its glory. The opening sequence delivers all that we expect from Attenborough, captivating imagery of the spectacular biodiversity of our planet. Past features could be described as deceptive in their portrayal of a thriving natural world untouched by humans, perhaps contributing to a sense of complacency in its viewers.  However, here we experience a sharp twist in a narrative that we had previously become accustomed to. 

This film provides us with an insight into our destructive nature as expressed through a series of horrifying images; forests being cut down and replaced with a monoculture of palm trees, animals facing extinction, and coral reefs transforming into skeletal remains in our oceans. It was here that I felt the powerful effects of cinematography; juxtaposing images of thriving natural landscapes against ghostly wastelands. The cold language of statistics quantifies and reinforces the painful truth and tragedy that has unfolded over Attenborough’s lifetime. The images and figures speak for themselves. As Attenborough puts it, we have “destroyed” the wild places of our planet. But just as we are about to lose all hope, true to form, Attenborough provides a sense of optimism in the film’s final passage.  

In an important message, Attenborough explores the innovative responses and progressive practices emerging across the globe in response to this crisis. The message is clear and simple: we must make changes to turn the tide of history. Underpinning these ideas is the philosophy that we must work with nature rather than against it. The musical score from Steven Price strengthens this inspiring vision. 

Unlike previous documentaries that have been reticent to spotlight the harsh realities that we face, A Life on Our Planet exposes us to the immense damage exploitative humans have caused. Equally, it offers us a chance to redeem our actions by changing our ways. As the pandemic continues, I wonder if I am being naive in my optimism that Covid-19 may inspire the directional change that the film desires at this juncture?  The return to Chernobyl, as the documentary closes, is a pertinent reminder of what is at stake. Nature will always fight back, Attenborough reminds us. It is not so much about saving our planet, as saving ourselves.  A Life on our Planet is now streaming on Netflix.