Life on Blu-ray
From the BBC and the Discovery Channel comes "Life", a kind of sequel/follow up to the mostly exquisite Planet Earth series.
But while Planet Earth was a high definition delight, giving us spectacular looks at a wide variety of, well, planet Earth and its inhabitants, Life comes across as its slightly ugly sister, an effort to recreate the wonder of Planet Earth but one that ultimately falls short of that earlier effort.
Not that Life isn't worth a look. Far from it. But it seems like we've seen this before; Life just isn't new enough or wondrous enough to take its place proudly next to Planet Earth.
Part of the reason appears to be the producers' choice to release the discs in two versions, one for the U.S. market and one for the U.K. The British version, which we didn't get, is narrated – as was Planet Earth and so many other nature documentaries – by David Attenborough, whose smooth voice and reverential delivery are top notch.
But the U.S. version features Oprah Winfrey, whose reputation was not gained as a famed naturalist and narrator and brings little to the role. That wouldn't necessarily be a fatal blow, but added to that is the fact that her narration sounds as if she'd reading it – which of course she is - but the difference is that Attenborough sounds like he's talking to us instead of reading to us. It makes a big difference. Winfrey's narration becomes obtrusive, nearly the focus of attention rather than being merely a part of the overall experience.
The episodes also appear to have been edited for commercial TV so that, instead of unfolding naturally over the running time of each segment, they fade into and out of black in a manner that seems designed to make room for breaks. This causes the resulting product to seem more than a tad disjointed.
We don't know, but we wonder if people who get the Winfrey/Discovery versions aren't getting short changed. We certainly hope not – and we suspect not, because Planet Earth's episodes ended with a short "Making of" feature that's missing from Life. Instead, we get a separate "Making of Life" as a supplementary episode on the final disc, and it's quite interesting.
Anyway, despite our angst, there's a lot here on the series' four discs, which are presented in a lovely "book-like" case. Alas, while the case is attractive, they've mounted the discs so that two of them sit on top of the other two, making it a pain to get the bottom discs out. Getting the bottom discs back in is even more interesting.
The series starts with the episode "Challenges of Life", which is kind of an overview and introduction to the show and shows us just how difficult it can be to survive against all odds in some of Planet Earth's more difficult regions and situations. We look at some of the peculiar adaptations various species have made to give them a leg – or a fin or a wing – up against the competition and the environment.
Some of the footage in this episode is recycled in later ones that focus on different groups of species, but of course the later episodes have time to expand on the first episode's introductory looks.
Subsequent episodes focus on: Reptiles and Amphibians, Mammals, Fish, Birds, the creepy-crawly Insects, and then the broader "Hunters and the Hunted" (which looks as much at how animals escape being eaten as it does on the actual hunting and eating), Creatures of the Deep (which looks more at deep sea invertebrates than it does the previously covered Fish), Plants, and Primates. The latter was our favorite, maybe because we find it fascinating to watch our closest relatives and maybe because it was kind of like looking into a mirror.
The four Blu-rays of the Oprah Winfrey version are presented in 1080i – though apparently the Attenborough version is in 1080p, mostly. This is confusing, though to be fair the 1080i picture is just fine, with excellent detail and very rich color.
Strangely, the menus are set up so that it looks like you're choosing chapters instead of episodes, but once you're past that you're faced with a more customary chapter selection.
The audio is presented in dts HD Master Audio 5.1 and it's as great as the video – though we'd have liked to hear more sounds of nature and less of the narration. Still, you will find yourself surrounded by the action and that's quite enthralling.
Extras include the abovementioned "Making of Life" as well as 10 "Life on Location" production video diaries – which for some reason are presented in 1080p! There are also some deleted scenes and a “narration free” viewing option which lets you get rid of Winfrey, but at the expense of the information.
In all, a worthwhile presentation, but we'd love to have tried the British version instead.
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.