“Only one creature has carved out a life for itself in every habitat on Earth. That creature is us. All over the world we still use our ingenuity to survive the wild places, far from the city lights, face to face with raw nature. This is the Human Planet.”
Most of us live in, or at least near, a modern city. We live a life where our food comes from a grocery store. Sure, you might have a garden or even raise a few animals, but unless you live on a farm, you likely purchase most of what you eat from metal shelves in large buildings. Our clothes come ready to wear on a rack at any number of department stores or shopping malls. We entertain ourselves with large flat-screen televisions, and we get about in automobiles. It’s a life most of us take for granted. For most of us it’s almost inconceivable that there are a large number of people on this planet, right here and now in the 21st century, who live lives we would call primitive. And while Human Planet is, on its surface, a series about the various habitats on this planet, it is really about the unique peoples that make these isolated and often hidden places their homes.
With the exception of the last episode, this series examines cultures that still live a life tied closely to the land around them. While some have had this life enhanced somewhat by modern technology, they basically live with little assistance from the modern world. Each episode takes one of the various ecosystems found on Earth and delivers stories of some of these people and cultures that live here. The episodes examine how their lives have adapted to their environment. The episodes examine how their cultures and even their mores have been shaped by the places in which they live. It’s an examination as much of the history of these people themselves as the places they have called home for centuries. All of the episodes are narrated effectively by John Hurt.
The episodes are spread over three discs. The habitats covered are as follows:
Oceans – Into The Blue: About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and while there are no people who live in the water itself, there are countless cultures that live on the edge of the sea and depend upon it for their survival. This episode also examines nomadic people who live their entire lives on houseboats. They travel to where they can find fish and other necessities, coming on shore only for supplies and fuel. There is dramatic footage of a village in simple wooden boats harpooning a whale to feed the entire community. Dolphins cooperate with one tribe and herd fish toward waiting fisherman and even signal when to cast the nets. A New Guinea “shark caller” claims to communicate with the spirit of the animals and has the ability to summon them on command.
Deserts – Life In The Furnace: Most of these stories deal with the struggles that desert cultures must face to find water. One culture raises giant air mesh nets to capture condensation from the air itself. When the rains do come, they have a profound effect on many desert cultures. One culture has a huge three-day festival where marriage vows are suspended and men dress and dance to attract lovers for the festival.
Arctic – The Deep Freeze: Some arctic tribes go under the ice during annual super-low tides to hunt for mussels. Other activities shows include hunting narwhals to herding reindeer in Norway across a two-mile strait. Another culture captures birds during migration. They stuff them by the hundreds inside seal skin and bury them in the ground for three months to ferment. When they are ready they are eaten as a feast. I could smell them in my theater. They eat these rotting birds raw. In one town there is a polar bear patrol, and the episode joins them on a Halloween night where kids go out trick-or-treating and attempt to not be a treat themselves.
Jungles – People Of The Trees: Imagine an old Christmas carol written by one jungle tribe. It might go something like: “Spiders roasting on an open fire.” In this tribe children are expected to fend for themselves. They capture big Goliath tarantulas and roast them like marshmallows to eat. Another culture eats monkeys they kill with poison darts. Any babies left by killed mothers are breast-fed by the tribe’s women and kept as pets. The episode shows how one tribe uses elephants to clear timber in a more environmentally friendly way. Because the elephants don’t need smooth surfaces to operate, only the wanted timber is removed and no clearing is necessary. Finally, we watch a tribe build a house 120 feet into the air where they will live.
Mountains – Life In Thin Air: Here one tribe erects giant nets to catch and eat bats. They eat the whole thing, including the leather wings. Another tribe catches baby eagles and trains them to hunt. One culture feeds their dead to the vultures. The “undertaker” cuts the body into strips and tosses them to the waiting birds. He admits that he needs a little whiskey to do his job.
Grasslands – The Roots Of Power: There are birds here that have a language they only use with humans. They lead them to honey trees in exchange for some of the prize. Another tribe hunts water snakes for a lucrative food market. There’s a daring tribe that doesn’t hunt for food. They steal prey from entire prides of lions.
Rivers – Friend Or Foe: People who live on rivers are captive to the feast or famine of floods and droughts. The episode explores how some cultures deal with floods and even when a river disappears entirely. Fisherman fish in the only safe spot on an African river, the only place crocodiles and hippos won’t go… the top edge of a several-hundred-foot waterfall. Others use elephants to sniff out hidden sources of water.
Cities – Surviving The Urban Jungle: Here the series turns very preachy and appears to present those of us that live in cities in quite a bad moral light. Statements like the one that claims city live only by hijacking the world’s resources make it quite clear that the producers feel there is a moral superiority of these other cultures. The show avoided making these kinds of statements until this point. In my opinion it hijacks the show’s credibility and takes away from the work and impact that can truly be found in the rest of the series.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Warner opted to only send the DVD here. I imagine this looks a lot better in high definition. Here the colors are very natural, and they only put three episodes on a disc, so compression is not really a problem. Black levels are above average. There are a few truly spectacular images here that make this an above-average standard-definition image presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track serves mostly the animation.
Behind The Lens: Each episode comes with a ten minute look at one of the locations from that episode. The crew talk about their experience and we get to see their interaction with the peoples.
This BBC production is part of their on-going Earth series. The set contains a ton of diversity and except for the final episode largely avoids the heavy-handed moralizing. John Hurt is excellent as a narrator, and you will be quite amazed at the number of these kinds of cultures still exist on Earth. One of the extras looks at the fact that there are still tribes on the planet that have never had contact with the outside world. It’s an eye-opening series that is absolutely worth a look. It begs the question: “Where do we go from here?”