Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Documentary Review: Life in Cold Blood

"Reptiles and amphibians are sometimes seen as simple, primitive creatures.  That's a long way from the truth.  The fact that they are solar-powered means that their bodies require only 10% of the energy that mammals of a similar size require.  At a time when we ourselves are becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which we get our energy from the environment and the wasteful way in which we use it, maybe there are things that we can learn from life in cold blood."

For several decades, David Attenborough has been the name in wildlife documentaries.  His career started off in the 1950s, making nature programs in association with the Zoological Society of London, including a few field expeditions to record zoo staff collecting animals around the world.  He is perhaps best known for the stunningly beautiful Planet Earth, documenting species and habitats never before filmed.

The work of Attenborough's that has impressed me the most, however, are his Life series: Life of Mammals, Life of Birds, etc.  So, a few years back, I heard that Attenborough was continuing the series with a five-episode miniseries on reptiles and amphibians, I could hardly wait.  The result was the incredible documentary, Life in Cold Blood.

Reptiles barely factored into Planet Earth, and amphibians far less so, so I was a little pessimistic about how the documentary turned out.  I needn't have worried - Attenborough's subjects may be smaller and more cryptic than those in his other documentaries, but he does a wonderful job of highlighting them nevertheless.  Unlike in Planet Earth, Attenborough is more than an off-screen narrator in this series; he is actively engaging with his subjects, whether holding up a mirror to coax an anole into displaying, or using a specially-treated face-mask to demonstrate the defense response of a spitting cobra.

Too many reptile documentaries follow the Steve Irwin model of emphasizing the danger and destructive power of the animals - lunging crocodiles, crushing pythons, striking vipers, all that.  It's all about which animal can kill you the quickest and in the most gruesome fashion, and the subject animals are reduced to cold-blooded killing machines with no instinct other than kill and eat.  Attenborough portrays reptiles and amphibians in a much different light.  He succeeds in presenting a multi-dimensional view of the animals, with complex behaviors and surprisingly social lives.  I kid you not, I thought my girlfriend was going to cry during a scene with a shingleback skink (Attenborough calls them "sleepy lizards", an absurdly cute name) that refused to leave the body of its mate, which had been hit by a car.

Like in his other series, Attenborough eschews the classic footage that is seen in every documentary over and over again in favor of new, exciting footage.  In the crocodilian episode, for instance, you won't see crocodiles ripping up zebras, but you will see crocodiles cooperatively hunting for fish in pitch blackness.  In the lizard episode, you won't see Komodo dragons at a carcass, but you will see newly hatch lace monitors exploring the termite mound where they were born.  Some of the most unique footage comes from the amphibian episode: Japanese giant salamanders battle underwater, while Panamanian golden frogs communicate with semaphore-like waves of their hands (this series includes the last ever footage of Panamanian golden frogs in the wild).  Each episode ends with a great behind-the-scenes special, describing how footage or data was captured.

Life in Cold Blood does a fantastic job of portraying reptiles and amphibians not as dull brutes, barely sentient beings, but as creatures that are as complex and unique as birds or mammals.  My only regret about the series was how short it was.  It could have really done with another two or three episodes...

No comments:

Post a Comment