David Attenborough’s achingly beautiful A Life On Our Planet is more call to action than nature documentary, more open petition than love letter to life. And yet, unlike Our Planet or Dynasties, A Life fails in what it sets out to achieve. The message is undirected and so lacks power and conviction, while the work’s sharp jumps between present, past and an imagined rewilded future feel jarring at times, better suited to a film like 2040 than a David Attenborough documentary.
“This is a series of one-way doors”, the 94-year-old presenter warns as he mourns the loss of the Holocene’s stable climate, our very own “Garden of Eden”. When it comes to the science, he knows exactly what it is we risk losing. Unfortunately, despite the flawless care with which A Life communicates climatologist predictions, extinction figures and potential future changes in weather patterns, it does not manage to treat the sociology or history it touches upon with the same accuracy or clear-sighted precision. No mention is made of corporate greed. Climate justice and the disparity between consequences facing the Global South and those facing the Global North are all but ignored. A Life is a plea made to humankind as a whole but this misses the mark, because humankind as a whole is not the true cause. Some people, some ways of living, some practices, are. Without calling these individuals, governments and for-profits out, the film places the blame on everyone, and the responsibility on nobody.
This is of course entirely accidental. Attenborough’s sincerity and passion for change shines through and will surely be joined by that of his viewers. The issue is where to go from here. With many of the problems and their physical solutions neatly mapped out, the film appears to have covered everything, but this impression is deceiving. A Life knows its destination, but not its route. It celebrates the progress that has already been made – Morocco’s impressive transition to renewables, Palau’s no-fishing zones – but the narrative is framed in terms of what happened, not how it was done. The film glosses over the social, political and economic infrastructure that led to all of these changes, and this is a pity because, if it hopes to inspire action, that kind of information, along with honesty and candour, is vital. For viewers to act on what they see, they need to know the messy reality as well as the sanitised and simplified online version. Environmental action often takes years of work to achieve, individual lifestyle adjustments are admirable but useless in comparison to active campaigning and, without the closing of loopholes, even supposedly beneficial changes can have harmful effects.
None of these criticisms are to say that the film is not worth watching. As an introduction to the major themes of the current environmental catastrophe, it is useful, and, like Attenborough’s other recent documentary Extinction: The Facts, it makes the welcome decision to focus not only on global warming but also on its twin crisis of biodiversity loss. The film’s storytelling is wide-ranging and sometimes nuanced, even if its handling of the societal issues is not. On the whole, as a documentary, it works well. It is in its claim to be a ‘witness statement’, as well as in its wholehearted but simplistic attempt to push for a better future, that it falls short. Where the science and the changes needed are already known, footage of wind turbines rotating in the sun to hopeful music will do little to make them happen. David Attenborough might be the witness – and if anyone could speak for the natural world, it would be him – but the target viewers are not the ones who need to hear it most. By refusing to point the finger at a corporate culture that puts expansion and profit above both nature and humanity, Attenborough has missed a vital opportunity to make the guilty feel guilty. Instead, he has unwittingly played into the hands of those who would support a system that puts cold profit above the needs of all other life on Earth.