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Documentary - Earth - The Biography

Earth: The Biography
Dr Iain Stewart
UK 2008
BBC / Warner Home Video
230 minutes

These days, it seems like every network out there is pumping out docs on the state and future of our fragile planet: illegal poaching, illegal logging, legal-but-destructive driving, refining, drilling and strip-mining… TV screens everywhere are full of talking heads and disembodied voices describing everything from the unbelievable size of the North Pacific Gyre to the fact that the world’s most littered toxic item is the cigarette butt.  But even in this crowded field, Earth: The Biography is well worth a look.

Earth The Biography takes the breathtaking and bar-raising cinematic approach of the BBC’s earlier masterpiece, Planet Earth and replaces the stately tone of Sir David Attenborough with the more everyman charm of noted Glaswegian geologist Dr Iain Stewart. Stewart’s goshwow enthusiasm for the magic and poetry in the Earth’s workings is infectious.

His willingness to talk to the camera while struggling through a mountainous snowdrift with a helmet strapped to his head and ice on his eyelashes is a refreshing, humanizing change from the usual ethereal pronouncements or the polished look of part-time eco hosts like Anderson Cooper (who managed to remain spotless throughout CNN’s poignant, though histrionic, Planet in Peril).

In comparison, the sight of Dr Iain gabbing matter-of-factly through an oversized diving helmet while perched on some sort of goofy undersea scooter is almost… well, lovable.

The five episodes of Earth The Biography break down the history of Earth into the four main components that shaped the planet’s evolution (volcanoes, the atmosphere, ice and the oceans) and a final summing-up, aptly called “Rare Planet.”

Throughout, Stewart tells the story of the Earth’s history in plain English, keeping things simultaneously interesting and educational, all the while bringing it back to how each episode’s central theme contributed to the story of us.

Added to that are some simply fabulous time-lapse photography and computer-generated imagery -- and a couple of moments where it’s not quite clear just which it is tat we’re watching. A particularly impressive example is an absolutely photorealistic 14-million-year time-lapse scene detailing the erosion of an Oregon coastline.

Throughout this documentary Dr Iain Stewart lets us know that what we’re doing in our everyday lives is the biggest challenge the Earth has ever seen, but he leaves off the preachy doomsday talk that so many of the current docs depend on, instead leaving us with the cheerful message that, no matter what we do to kick Mother Nature to the ground, she’ll just fix everything up in a million years or less, and that who we should really be worried about is, in fact, us.


Jesse Corbeil is a freelance writer based in Montreal. More about him at www.jessecorbeil.ca

Jesse Corbeil

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