Movie Review: Earth by uncdiversions
May 15, 2009, 8:54 pm
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“Earth,” the critically acclaimed companion documentary to the popular “Planet Earth” TV series, opens with a big moral question mark, but it’s not the one you might think. While the film goes on to highlight the environmental destruction of global warming, it’s a little trailer at the beginning that begs the real question. The trailer is for a forthcoming movie-series on natural history by a new Disney subsidiary called ‘Disneynature.’ The inspiration, as the trailer gushes, comes from Walt Disney’s original nature documentaries from the forties and fifties. The question it begs is this: is it right for a megalithic multinational corporate media conglomerate (don’t be fooled by their unassuming official name, “The Walt Disney Company”) to try and masquerade as an environmentally progressive force?

Disney is known, historically, for its poor labor relations, and its over-eagerness to sue the shit out of anyone who dares appropriate the cultural icons that it has made an unavoidable part of our daily lives. Thanks to Disney, cultural diversity is as threatened as natural diversity. It is, in short, the original model of the evil media corporation. Before Fox News was, Walt Disney said, “I am.” So is this a positive development for the evil corporation, making movies like Earth and its sequels, expounding on the benefits of environmental protection as its bathes us in glowing images of natural splendor? Or is it a co-op of territory that rightfully belongs to the non-profit good guys, like the real conservationists over at National Geographic?

The boys and girls at National Geographic happened to co-produce a cute little film four years ago that demands comparison to Earth. “March of the Penguins” is infinitely superior to Earth in most ways, not least of which was its ability to harvest its narrator’s voice to a stately effect. Morgan Freeman is known for having something remotely akin to the Voice of God, but if anyone else is a contestant for the title, could it be anyone other than James Earl Jones? And yet, while Freemen booms majestically in his insular movie about penguin family-values, Jones, in Earth, somehow manages to get stuck, prattling cheesy and sententious lines that rob his voice of its virile potency. Even if this is a movie for kids, even young kids, the audience is prepared for something more profound than casual observations on the tilt of Earth’s axis.

Good nature writing and good nature documentaries take the commonplaces of the natural world, whether local or exotic, and find in them both the beautiful and the sublime. Conversely, this movie takes the astounding beauty of terrific nature cinematography (even if we all have seen it before on “Planet Earth”), and turns it into the commonplace of banal narration.

For the large part, “Earth “treats nature as an object of sympathy. This is a humanized, warm nature, a Disney nature. When we see a wolf chase down a baby caribou on the tundra, the shot cuts right before the carnivore sinks in its teeth. It’s as if the movie is scared to show the kiddies what really occurs in the animal kingdom. The distortion is typically Disney. In this day and age everyone panders in misconceptions of nature, and the spin-doctors of industry are no worse than the purveyors of pathetic fallacy. Must nature be protected vigorously? Of course. Does that mean that every deer is a little Bambi? Give me a break.

But James Earl Jones playing wing-man for a mating bird in the Amazon, while a stand-up bass line sets the mood? It’s just too much. Even if it is meant for kids, I don’t think this is the vision of nature our posterity would be best to inherit. Distortion is distortion.

Continuity and consistency are also sorely lacking from the documentary’s style. We may not see the wolf eat the caribou, but when a cheetah chases down prey on the savannah in slow-mo, the utter terror of predation is rendered in exact and inescapable detail. And then, of course, the shot cuts before we see one drop of blood. Why show the first part and not the second? Jumping from the savannah to the Himalayas to the “great rivers,” Earth has no direction, no rhyme and no reason. There is no thematic thread tying everything together, except perhaps that tilting axis.

If there’s a reason to see this movie in a theatre, it’s because one doesn’t have a high quality home entertainment system on which to watch reruns of “Planet Earth.” I lack this ability, so I must admit to finding Earth at least slightly novel. When one filters out the narrated triviality, the breathtaking shots of time-lapse cloud formation and the surround-sound grumble of hungry lions is arresting. I can forgive directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield for over-using the visual metaphor of herds of wildebeest flowing like a river, because, well, it’s a damn good metaphor. And though it’s similarly over-exposed, the extreme slow-motion shot of the Great White shark going fully airborne as it devours a seal is incomparable. There is a unique beauty to slow motion; as Walter Benjamin observes, it literally extends time, and nowhere is this more true than with the last brief frames of this poor seal’s life. Fothergill and Linfield clearly appreciate this beauty, and use it to good effect.

But the best and most valuable shots in the whole movie have to be of fungi, specifically the time-lapse scenes of various fungi growing in the Amazon. If the success of a documentary is judged by its ability to document the real (though I’m not saying it necessarily is), then this is one of the few real successes in “Earth.” These mushrooms, spores and jellies pulse like the heart of the tropics, like pure, disgusting, ugly, beautiful life. Against them all other forms, from Great White to human, are derivative. That’s the way to be both commonplace and beautiful. If only such shots weren’t so rare and brief, “Earth” might have been the same.

– By Diversions Staff Writer Jonathan Pattishall


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