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'Our Planet' Is A Remorseful Call To Arms


This is FRESH AIR. Over the past 40 years, Sir David Attenborough has become internationally known and respected for his groundbreaking documentary shows about the natural world. His new eight-part series "Our Planet" is currently streaming on Netflix. Our critic at large John Powers says this one is different.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We've been hearing about climate change for decades now. Heck, it's been a dozen years since "An Inconvenient Truth" won the Oscar. But the topic is now taking on a new urgency, spawning everything from a recent spate of bleak new books to the utopian video about a Green New Deal narrated by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Over in Britain, the non-violent movement called Extinction Rebellion has been occupying parts of central London to force leaders to confront the enormous elephant in the room of our planet.

If anyone knows elephants inside the room and out, it's Sir David Attenborough, the 92-year-old natural historian whose shows I've been loving seemingly forever. While Sir David hasn't been blind to environmental issues, his shows have been a bit reticent about dealing with them. These days, such reticence risks looking clueless or disingenuous, which may be why his new Netflix series "Our Planet" finds him starkly addressing how humanity - and, in particular, climate change - have been messing up our shared world.

At first glance, "Our Planet" resembles his earlier landmark programs such as "Life On Earth" or "Blue Planet." It boasts the same spectacular footage shot on state-of-the-art equipment - in this case, drones and super-high-def cameras. It serves up many of his trademark scenarios. Here, baby flamingos must trek across a wasteland to survive. In fact, if you turned down the sound, you might think you were watching a series on nature's infinite bounty. After all, video images are great at showing us armadas of dolphins or squadrons of wildebeests fleeing wild Serengeti dogs. What they can't show is how quickly all these creatures have been vanishing.

Yet if you listen, Sir David's narration is radically different this time. Even as the show travels the globe to wow us with wonders - it's cool seeing bald eagles snatch herring from Alaskan waters - Sir David keeps explaining how climate change threatens these wonders, which are far from infinite, by destroying their habitats with increasing speed. One devastating sequence begins by showing tens of thousands of walruses crammed on a strip of land on the far northeastern coast of Russia. It's an awesome sight, although not a happy one, as Sir David's words and the music make clear.


DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: This is the largest gathering of walrus on the planet. Over a hundred thousand have hauled out on one single beach. They do so out of desperation, not out of choice. Their natural home is out on the sea ice, but the ice has retreated away to the north, and this is the closest place to the feeding grounds where they can find rest.

POWERS: By the end, we watch the desperately overcrowded walruses escape to the top of nearby cliffs. But when they try to get back to the water to get food, they go tumbling down the rocks to their gruesome deaths. Sir David makes it clear that their fate is the last step in a process prompted by human-made climate change.

All this is strikingly unusual for a mass-market nature show, especially one by such an establishment figure. The reason sponsors and network execs love programs about nature is that they seem safe for all audiences, young and old, because nature is wrongly supposed to be universal. After all, there's nothing controversial about a panda or a shark - unless, that is, human activity is wiping out sharks, and with them, coral reefs. Of course, once you start talking about this, you risk losing part of the audience.

These days, science - not least climate science - has become politicized, and in a way I find surprising. When I was young, scientists were often tweaked for being essentially conservative, too wedded to hard facts and the boringly unromantic scientific method. Now, without science ever changing those methods, its detractors think of it as radical, even left-wing, in part because it says things that, for reasons ranging from money to religious faith to mistrust of authority, they don't want to hear.

Sir David is too old and too distinguished - he's a knight, for crying out loud - to worry that he may be alienating anyone. Even as "Our Planet" offers viewers a few green tendrils of optimism about nature's resilience - the eighth and final episode ends with the return of animals to Chernobyl - he's more concerned to get us and our leaders to finally take action. And he does so with a restrained rhetoric that is neither alarmist, nor gung-ho about how scientific innovation will swoop in to save the day.

Rather than the usual battle between terror and hope, Attenborough offers a strange waltz between wonder and melancholy. First, the show thrills us with the marvels of nature, and then it saddens us that we are rapidly wiping them out. "Our Planet" is something I've never seen before - a remorseful call to arms.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the Netflix documentary series "Our Planet." On Monday's FRESH AIR...


PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) You are my angel. And you protect me, and I protect you.

BIANCULLI: ...Patricia Arquette. She stars in the new Hulu series "The Act," based on a true crime story about a mentally ill mother who pretends her daughter suffers from multiple disabilities and illnesses. Arquette starred last year in the prison drama "Escape At Dannemora." Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "ROSETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.