MSRP: $59.98
RUNNING TIME: 484 minutes
•    Life on Location
•    Deleted Scenes
•    “Music Only” viewing option

The Pitch

Planet Earth meets Oprah, in the battle to the death we all knew was coming.

The Humans

Narrated by Oprah Winfrey

Their favorite John Waters movie? Cry Baby.

The Nutshell

The amazing BBC series comes home to Americans with a shoddy narration that almost impedes the amazing natural stories and feats being presented.

The Lowdown

The BBC is responsible for some of the greatest nature documentaries of all time, including the international sensation Planet Earth from four years ago. So it was with much anticipation that the producers were going ahead with another series, this time entitled Life. Life surpasses the previous series in some ways, thought thematically it may not hold together as well. It is best to think of it as a companion, where the ever developing technology continues to allow better and rarer stories of natural growth to be told on film.

“We never should have brought the henchmen. We’re going to be the only
ones there with henchmen!”

The theme of Life is survival, whether it is butterflies migrating en masse to Mexico to survive the winter or a plant that just wants to grow through the canopy of a forest to soak up sunlight. Sometimes it comes at a cost, like the octopus mother that starves itself to protect its eggs or an orca that wades into shallow waters to eat seals. But life can be wonderful, full of the wonder that can only come from seeing the mating race of whales or a bat that hunts fish using sonar. All of these things are but a small part of the 130 stories depicted in the series, 54 of which have apparently never been filmed before.

The series was ported over to American shores for the Discovery Channel, and after the success of Planet Earth, they made a big deal of it. I was fortunate enough to see the original BBC broadcast in HD, and it was breathtaking. But television formats are different in Britain than in the U.S.A. Not just PAL vs. NTSC, but because the BBC is a national agency, their programming is more commercial free, like our PBS. So the original BBC episodes were approximately an hour long, while typical “hour long” programming in the U.S. is actually 42 minutes of content plus commercials. This is the most apparent cause for the American version of Life being reedited to switch segments around and leave some stories on the cutting room floor, and why there isn’t a simple optional audio track choice for those that may prefer the British or American narration track.

The Spongebob costume contest was a wash.

Narration is a key factor to nature documentaries of this sort, and a good or bad narrator can make a major impact on the way the story comes across. David Attenborough, a legend in the field, was the narrator for the BBC’s version and truly did a marvelous job that makes you feel the emotion and wonder of every breathtaking moment. But just as he was replaced on the Planet Earth series for American audiences with a star familiar to them, so too he was absent on the Discovery Channel, which is reflected on this DVD set. The legend goes that Oprah Winfrey was such a fan of Planet Earth that she insisted on narrating this follow up. Unfortunately, Oprah is a terrible narrator who lacks the poise and subtlety that Attenborough has. After watching the series with Attenborough and then hearing Oprah’s version, I wanted to simply turn off the DVD. Obviously the producers of this set were aware that they made a mistake, and included a “Music Only” audio option here. Special mention should be made of the music by Fred Karns and Richard Fiocca, which always matches the mood of the moment at hand, and the entire team responsible for the natural sounds, which accompany the stark images so well. 

The images in Life are nothing short of breathtaking, from the most microscopic to the expansive. Many scenes, especially those dealing with insects or plants, had me rewinding to rewatch what I had just witnessed. Many shots were done in time lapse, showing what our normal perception of time makes us incapable of seeing. For anyone who is an enthusiast of photography on any level, this is a must see. Though this is a review of the Winfrey-narrated DVD edition, I can wholeheartedly recommend the blu-ray Attenborough version as the ultimate choice, because standard definition just can’t do these images justice. Absent from the Attenborough edition is the 11th episode, titled “The Making of Life”, but for those paying attention it was simply the behind the scenes that were at the tail of every BBC episode recut with new Winfrey narration. Life is a fantastic 10 out of 10 series that can and should be appreciated by any audience, no matter their age (though it does feature some realities that may be too harsh for younger viewers). But it gets points off for the American bastardization and standard definition presentation, which drags down a great program.


The Package

Life comes in a book style package housed within a slipcase. It sure is shiny, with holofoil stamped on all sides. Inside the book is a few pages of animal photography, and on each side, 2 of the 4 discs in the collection. The discs are overlapping slightly, in that annoying style that forces you remove one disc to get to the other. There are certainly better ways of doing it.

The image is 16:9 enhanced, though compared to the HD version I watched upon initial broadcast these DVDs look positively atrocious. The compression is obvious and it’s a crying shame because these are some of the most breathtaking natural images ever captured. For anyone out there who has access to a blu-ray player, I highly suggest splurging for the HD version as there just isn’t any comparison. A Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that is filled out nicely by the many natural sounds, the music, and the narration.

Wait until you see this shot in slow motion from under water.

The special features begin with “Life on Location”, which are the ten behind the scenes featurettes that the original BBC broadcast ran after each episode. They are somewhat expanded versions of the same stories and footage that were hacked up for the Discovery Channel’s fabricated 11th episode. Similarly the Deleted Scenes run approximately 18 minutes and are additional short stories and vignettes that were cut for time from the American broadcast. Finally, the “Music Only” viewing option is available on all episodes for those that just want to appreciate the pretty pictures with some light aural accompaniment. It would be great to just have this playing on any occasion where you deem it necessary to have your TV playing something cool in the background. Word is the David Attenborough narrated edition that was released is missing this one welcome bonus feature.

7.9 out of 10 for the Oprah DVD version