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Television review: 'Life'

The gorgeous 11-part series captures the beauty and pathology of nature.

March 19, 2010|By MARY McNAMARA | Television Critic
  • A sailfish stalks a shoal of fish in "Life," an 11-part series.
A sailfish stalks a shoal of fish in "Life," an 11-part series. (Hugh Miller / Discovery…)

“Life,” like its predecessor "Planet Earth," is the reason flat screens, Blu-ray and high-definition TV were invented. No doubt the 11-part series, with its astonishingly intimate footage of A-Z species engaged in every sort of behavior, will play well on any screen. But its color, scope, detail and gorgeousness cry out for a home theater situation, one of those screens so big you can watch it from the street.

Like "Planet Earth, "Life" is a hands-across-the-water project between Discovery and the BBC. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who joins Morgan Freeman in the race for Most Recognizable and Instantly Trusted American Voice, it opens with a "Challenges of Life," a wide-ranging overview exploring the many facets of survival, which essentially boil down to hiding, hunting, mating and giving birth. (Think TLC meets Bravo with a lot less drinking, ultimatums and whining.)

Subsequent episodes break down by species -- "Birds," "Plants," "Reptiles and Amphibians" -- as well as broader groupings -- "Creatures of the Deep," "Hunters and Hunted."

Dazzling and precise, the imagery of "Life" offers us the universe in a raindrop or, more aptly, evolution in a chameleon's tongue and the trip-wires of the Venus flytrap. Stalking and slaughter, always a keystone of any good nature film, becomes a primer of ingenuity and partnership -- cheetah brothers, "mudringing" dolphins, pods of orca killer whales patrolling the seas in deadly formation -- all captured in mesmerizing detail.

In the "Reptiles and Amphibians" episode, the patient stalking and poisoning of a water buffalo by a group of Komodo dragons is nature at its most pathological -- watching the dragons lazily eyeing their stumbling and desperate victim, it's difficult not to believe they're enjoying themselves.

Though the narration is minimal and, with Winfrey's help, a nice balance of science and sentiment, it's impossible not to anthropomorphize. In the first episode, the mini-section on motherhood leaves the mind reeling -- what is the bottom line of procreation? And how do human mothers compare, dedication-wise, with that of a strawberry dart frog or giant octopus? Answer: not well -- and only the most hard-hearted among us could remain dry-eyed while witnessing the sacrifice of the female octopus.

So that's what "Life" can do: make one weep over the fate of a species once relegated to nightmares and science fiction.

There are, not surprisingly, many cinematic firsts here, including the Komodo dragon sequence, a humpback whale mating battle and the survival tactics of a tiny but resilient pebble toad. Watching as the toad eludes a hungry tarantula by falling and bouncing endlessly down a cliff, certain questions emerge. Is this the fall of a single toad, or were retakes (and possibly a stunt toad) involved? How many cameras were involved and how did they know where to place the cameras? A "Making of" episode ends the series, so we'll just have to wait.

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