BBC’s “The Blue Planet” & “Planet Earth”

The Blue Planet and Planet Earth are BBC documentary TV series that are without question the most spectacular, incredible documentaries about the natural world I have ever seen. They could easily play as a series of films in a theatre and it would be fantastic. At times it’s like watching science fiction with creatures that seem unreal, landscapes and geological formations even the most imaginative artists couldn’t conceive. There are shots of animals up close that turn into wide shots so wide you’d think the camera was fired into orbit. It’s not only a mind-blowing visual feast. It’s informative and dramatic. The narration reveals just enough to make you move in for a closer look, and you’ll be glad you did. The Blue Planet and Planet Earth may transform your perception of life, not just the planet and the natural world. My highest recommendations.

Planet Earth was recently Disneyfied as Earth and Oceans. The footage still looks pretty damn fantastic. But for home viewing, at least for anyone over the age of 10, the original Planet Earth is the way to go. (I’d avoid the commercial TV version too.)

“Never Cry Wolf” and “The Snow Walker”

Never Cry Wolf and The Snow Walker are based on works by Farley Mowat and should be seen together. If you like one, chances are you’ll like the other. The drama is magnified in both movies by the desolate and beautiful landscape of Canada’s north. In Never Cry Wolf, a scientist spends six months in the bush studying wolves. It’s a quiet, somewhat meditative movie that takes a look at our relationship with the natural world. That relationship can be harmonious, perhaps even sacred; sacred as in having respect for the environment. Or it can be motivated by the usual crap that’s destroying the planet: greed. The Snow Walker, although more action-oriented, has a similar message: respect the land and you’ll survive; don’t and it will kill you. Both movies use stereotypes (stupid white men; wise natives) to present an idealized version of the north. But that’s a minor criticism that’s easy to overlook because the filmmakers succeed so well at transporting us into a world that we would otherwise never know (unless you live up north).

The Snow Walker is a must-see movie for fans of Never Cry Wolf. A bush pilot (Barry Pepper) and an Inuit passenger crash on the tundra and are forced to survive off the land and find their way back to civilization together. That’s it. It’s minimal, but it works. The guy who plays Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, Charles Martin Smith, returns as the director this time around with a vision of the north that is beautiful and brutal all at once. It may even surpass Never Cry Wolf. The Snow Walker is also reminiscent of Himalaya — the natural landscape overwhelms all aspects of the story and heightens the drama every step of the way. It’s fiction, but it can also work as a documentary; watching a movie like this is the next best thing to being there.

UPDATE (Nov. 22/09): The Snow Walker did not hold up well to a second viewing. I must have been in the mood for it the first time I saw it. I watched it by myself and really go into it. But watching it with someone else, I quickly realized that it’s not a must-see for anyone who likes Never Cry Wolf. It’s more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, a syrupy made-for-TV melodrama, and one that really is not in the same league as Never Cry Wolf. The living off the land and the natural beauty of the landscape is still good, but the acting isn’t the greatest, the music is heavy-handed, and all the back stories are irrelevant. It would have been a more interesting, convincing and dramatic story if they’d kept it simple: minimal music and no back stories, just the pilot and the Inuit girl living off the land. And it’s not even close to being as good as Himalaya.

The Woods Is My Church

My mom tries to get my 4 year old daughter to go to church every Sunday, like she did with my brother and me 30 years ago. I don’t go to church, so last week my daughter asks where my church is. I said, “In the woods,” so she pictures a big wooden building in the woods somewhere. “Do you want to go?” I ask. It’s 8am on Sunday; a sunny, great day for a walk in the woods. “Is it big?” she asks. “Yup. You’ll love it,” I say. My wife is giving me funny looks.

We drive to the trail’s entrance and my daughter exclaims, “This is Dobson’s Trail! Your church is here?!” As we start walking in the woods she asks me how far away the church is. “This is it,” I say. “The woods is my church. See the logs where we rest? Those are the pews. The squirrels and birds are the choir.” “Wow,” she whispers. She gets it.

So every Sunday morning we go to our church now: a quiet walk in the woods.