Rating: 3.5 out of 5
A female polar bear emerges from a cave on an arctic slope. Soon after, her two cubs follow, slipping on the unfamiliar snow. It is the end of winter, and the three bears must make their way to the sea to hunt for food
Miles away, a male polar bear – possibly the cubs’ father – has made a head start; he lumbers across an enormous iceberg, towards a hunting ground populated by walruses.
Due to global warming, however, the iceberg is melting – fast – and the male polar bear may have to swim a major part of the way before any prospect of finding food.
Thus begins Earth, a breathtaking feature documentary by the BBC and Discovery Channel, compiled from stock footage of the producers’ Planet Earth television series.
Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, two veterans of the BBC school of natural history documentaries (see Deep Blue, about undersea life, and the BAFTA-nominated Life of Mammals), Earth lingers on the change of the seasons and chronicles its effects on animals’ migratory patterns across the globe.
Shot with 30 camera teams over 4,500 days in more than 200 locations, the hi-definition images captured in this US$47 million production are nothing short of spectacular: Demoiselle cranes soar over the Himalayas; African elephants frolic in a lake after an exhaustive trek across the bone-dry Kalahari; a Six-Plumed Bird of Paradise performs a bizarre mating dance; Mandarin ducklings cascade from their nest high up in the trees; a great white shark ambushes a hapless seal.
Nature is cute, and brutal too.
Needless to say there’s a point to showing us all this amazing phenomena: “This is the earth’s circle of life that most of us living in the urban world have lost touch with,” the film’s narrator (Patrick Stewart) tells us.
The message is a tad didactic, perhaps, but undeniably true. Men’s activities have caused an alarming rise in global temperatures, which in turn is melting polar caps, creating unpredictability in freshwater supplies, and killing the plankton that sustains all aquatic life.
The film concludes by returning to the male polar bear, who, as it pans out, had to swim a much longer way than he had expected, to get to the walrus colony. By this time, he is too tired to hunt. After making three feeble attempts to abduct a walrus cub, the polar bear slumps on the ice, exhausted and ready to die.
We are told his partner, the female from the film’s opening sequence, and their two cubs are likely to suffer the same tragic fate.
The polar bear has, of course, long become a potent symbol of the environmental movement. The makers of Earth do not shy away from this cliché, but end their documentary with a shot of the solitary polar bear, swimming lost in a sea of shattered ice floes.
It’s an unforgettable image, and one that breathes new urgency to an increasingly hackneyed truism: If the polar bear goes extinct – and this may happen as soon as 2030 - then mankind is in serious trouble too.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper premiered in Singapore last month and will be released in Malaysia on May 13.