After a lifetime spent making the world’s best natural history films, 94-year-old
David Attenborough is ripe for a misty-eyed sizzle reel of all his best bits on TV – rolling around with mountain gorillas for Life On Earth, warding off a walrus for Life In The Freezer and charming a dozen generations into falling in love with nature over 70 years of classic BBC teatime documentaries. But this isn’t that film.
Less awe-struck than grief-stricken; now visibly upset by his own vision for the future, A Life On Our Planet is a sad, angry death knell for planet Earth rung by the one man who knows better than anyone just what’s being lost. Maybe the first pre-apocalypse disaster movie ever made, it’s easily the most frightening horror movie of the year.
Our planet, Attenborough says, is no longer dying, it’s being murdered. By us. Using his own lifespan to frame the ecological changes of the last century, he shows us just how different the world is now to the one he was born into in 1926. Directors Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey (all BBC Earth veterans) offer a few flashes of biography – even including a bit of dramatic reconstruction as David remembers finding his first fossil – but this isn’t Attenborough’s story, it’s ours. We might get plenty of classic highlights and impossibly beautiful animal footage, but they’re not quite so charming when they’re overlaid with rolling statistics showing how fast the world’s population is growing and how much wildness is being cut down.
“I certainly would feel very guilty if I saw what the problems are and decided to ignore them,” says Attenborough, almost in tears as he shuffles through the ruins of Chernobyl – a visual metaphor for how catastrophic these problems really are. “We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world – the very thing that gave birth to our civilisation. The thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead.”
For the last 10,000 years we’ve been living comfortably in “the Holocene” – a period of time that stretches from the last ice age until now when the average temperature of the planet has hasn’t risen or dipped by even a single degree. Around the time Attenborough was born, we started messing things up. Breeding, building and buying at a rate that wasn’t even sustainable 90 years ago, we’re now faced with a dangerously overcrowded planet that’s being stripped of all of its natural resources – where delicate webs of biodiversity face the kind of destruction that now threaten our own lives.
“We haven’t just ruined it… we’ve destroyed it. That world is gone”, says Attenborough, in the same hushed voice that once sparked such wonder and joy for everyone who grew up watching anything from Life On Earth in the ’70s to 2017’s blockbuster Blue Planet II.
And then comes the gut punch. As the veteran broadcaster nears the end of his own life, he offers his predictions for the next 95 years. The Amazon rainforest completely destroyed. Catastrophic species loss. An ice-free arctic. Crashing fish populations. A global food crisis. An almost uninhabitable planet. “A series of one-way doors,” he sighs, “bringing irreversible change”.
So what can we do about it? Replace all fossil fuels with solar, wave and geothermal energy. Clean the oceans. Introduce sustainable fishing. Stop eating meat. Immediately halt all deforestation. Universal health care and women’s education. Stop buying new stuff. Stop throwing old stuff away. Stop having so many kids. “Re-wild” the world. You can almost hear the crack in his voice when he says the solution is “simple”. Whether he genuinely believes that we all have the capacity for change or he just doesn’t want to end the film on a downer, it’s still a bitter pill to swallow in a year like this.
If people kick up a fuss because they have to wear a mask in Asda to protect their own gran, what chance does a rare finless porpoise or a poison dart frog have when the cost of protecting them demands so much sacrifice? The lives of animals and plants might be more closely tied to our own than we like to admit, but a remarkable film like this needs to move us to action instead of tears if we have any hope of saving them. A Life On Our Planet might not be the film most of us want to watch in 2020, but it’s definitely the one we need to see.
- Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes and Keith Scholey
- Starring: David Attenborough
- Released: October 28 (in selected cinemas, and from October 4 on Netflix)