Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Life Story

(UK, 2014)

David Attenborough is by far the dominant force in nature documentaries, and has been for decades. He is getting up there in years, looking a bit older, and his brother Richard died a few years back. So I keep expecting to hear some bad news about him, such as that he’s retiring or, worse, dead. But he keeps soldiering on, happily, though he no longer puts himself into the frame as often as he used to. That’s probably because most of the stuff with his name on it these days is shot by someone else and then narrated by him. Still, in this one he takes the time to lie beside a meerkat colony and watch as the young come out for the first time. Meerkats seem to have no fear of humans at all, and will climb right on top of people and stand upright, since they always seek the highest ground when they are on watch for predators. It is so damn cute! I wish I could do that.

This is the first nature documentary shot with 4K Ultra-HD cameras, and it means a whole new level of filming. Because the resolution and frame rates are so high, it is possible to zoom in so close you can count the legs on a fly sitting on the face of a lion or cheetah without losing the HD resolution. It makes it look like the camera is about two feet away rather than the much greater distance it actually is so as not to interfere with the behavior of the animals. Believe me, you have never been this close to the action before. They also must have used camera drones a lot to get shots from above without the animals being freaked by it, as they would with an airplane or helicopter.

Part One: First Steps. The series deals with the stages of life, so we begin with childhood. Barnacle geese in Greenland build their nests very high up on sheer cliffs to be safe from predators. But there is a price. They can’t feed them up there, so within a day or two the chicks have to jump. Problem: they can’t fly. But instinct compels them to jump after their mother. And it’s a long, hard journey down, with many bumps along the way. Of five who jump, only three survive it. There is also amazing footage of a mother humpback whale trying to protect her weak infant from a big shark. It must have been shot from a drone. What had never been seen before was a big male (the father? Impossible to tell) arriving to drive the shark off. Also good stuff about truly weird orchid mantids and jerboas, who hunt at night, totally blind, listening with their huge ears.

Part Two: Growing Up. My favorite part is the young satin bowerbird. He’s only five years old and instinct is telling him to build a bower for courtship. But the poor guy is terrible at it. It takes about seven years for males of this species to really get the knack. He goes and looks at the bower of an adult, a really tight, high structure. So what does the adult do? Why, he demolishes the young bird’s bower. So the kid starts all over … Then there is the arctic fox, whose young have to learn to listen for lemmings under the snow. When think they’ve found one, they leap into the air and dive, nose first, into the snowbank. Only they don’t know how deeps it is, so sometimes they find themselves buried to the hind legs, and other times they find it was only a few inches deep, and the impact looks painful. The most astonishing thing in this one is the veined octopus. They have learned to use discarded coconut shells to make an impregnable fortress, sealing themselves into the two halves. They actually carry them around!

Part Three: Home. The stand-out here is the youngsters of a pack of African wild dogs learning to work together to bring down a huge wildebeest. It must have been incredibly hard to film. I’m looking forward to Episode Seven, which is devoted to showing how they did things like that. We also see mountain goats, weaver ants building an incredible nest out of leaves, and some stunning footage of hummingbirds, who must feed all day long to support their rapid metabolism.

Part Four: Power. I have a sense that the titles and contents of these episodes had more to do with what was the best footage they had, rather than real stages of life. This one is mostly about ways of moving up in the social structure, which I guess can be seen as power. But it’s also about the young learning from the elders, even in such an unlikely animal as the archerfish, which shoot a stream of water to knock bugs off branches. There are tricks to be learned, and the young seem to observe the older fish to figure out how to compensate for the distortion of being underwater. Then there are the power struggles we are more familiar with, such as the dead serious and sometimes deadly kick-boxing matches of male kangaroos. A quite bizarre story is of honey ants in the Arizona desert. A whole battalion of queen ants work together to build a huge underground nest, and as soon as the first workers are hatched, they kill all the queens but one. There can only be one queen! How that one is selected no one seems to know.

Part Five: Courtship.
When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent
For a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal.
Call it sad, call it funny.
But it’s better than even money
That the guy’s only doing it for some doll.

Oh, the things a male will do to attract, woo, or retain ownership of a female. Sometimes he will give his life, as the peacock jumping spider. This poor sap throws up colorful flags and does a complicated dance, waves his legs around, does everything but send up skyrockets. If he hypnotizes the female, who is much larger than he is, she will allow him to mount her. And as soon as he’s done, she eats him.

In many species the males battle each other for control of a harem. Fur seals do it, sometimes unto death. So do kangaroos, risking broken bones which would surely be a death sentence. Bowerbirds build elaborate structures from twigs. The idea is to lure her in, fascinate her, and screw her while she is distracted by the great beauty of his edifice. That is, if other males don’t get there first and destroy it.

But the most amazing thing we see here is a tiny pufferfish found only on the sea bottom of a bay in Japan. Using only their fins and their mouths, they slowly carve out beautiful, perfectly symmetrical channels in the sand that have to be seen to be disbelieved. They call them “crop circles,” because they remind us of those things left behind by landing flying saucers. (Ha! As if!) This wasn’t even known until a few years ago, and no one knew what was making them until 2012. Now the process has been filmed. You just have to see this.

Part Six: Parenthood. Some animals lay hundreds or thousands of eggs and then just leave them alone. Most will be eaten in childhood, but with so many, some will survive. Other animals take extraordinary care of their young. A bonobo mother will rear her children for about five years, and maintain relations with them for life. I don’t know of any other mammal (other than us) who does that for so long. Most animals, it’s a year or two and then gone, or even less. A zebra mother is filmed trying to decide where to cross a river. Up there in the calm, but crocodile-infested water? Or down there in the rapids that might sweep her foal away. And elephants maintain some sort of relationship even after death, returning to the bones of a family member and handling them. Why? Nobody can say, but it sure looks like they are remembering the dead.

Part Seven: The Full Circle. This is a “Making of,” comprised of ten-minute segments that originally were shown after the six main episodes. Some of it will break your heart. It took a film crew all season to finally film the barnacle goose chicks making their death-defying leaps. It took three winters before they were able to film arctic foxes doing their nose-dives into the snow in search of lemmings. The first winter they barely even saw any foxes. Filming the puffer fish making his crop circle was extremely painstaking, as the slightest current made by the filmmakers could wipe it all out. The worst, though, was filming the bonobos. These apes live in the deepest, densest jungle, and are shy. These poor guys had horribly long hikes through bug-infested swamps, then interminable, boring waits for nothing at all to happen. One more instance where I’m very grateful that they were doing this, so I could see it.