Admired by Gen Z and their grandparents alike, Sir David Attenborough is one of the few public figures who has true intergenerational appeal. His lifelong career as a broadcaster and his commitment to the preservation of the natural world has solidified him as a royalty-like figure among the younger generation, and he regularly appears on British Hinge profiles as a "dream dinner guest". This kindred connection with young people is likely why the 94-year-old naturalist has pivoted away from terrestrial television for his latest documentary film, A Life On Our Planet, which premieres on Netflix on 4th October.
Described as his "witness statement" to the world, the new feature documentary, made in collaboration with WWF, stands as both a testament to the destruction of climate change and a practical guide to stopping it in its tracks. While it may seem like a big feat to encompass the two topics in only 82 minutes, the documentary manages to tread the line between harrowing and hopeful, detailing our problems as a global society and our collective power to right our wrongs. Set against the backdrop of Sir David’s six-decade-long career, the documentary puts the speed of the planet’s decline within the context of one person’s life and experiences, making for a truly affecting and thought-provoking watch.
Infographics display the world’s population, remaining wilderness and carbon levels against the years of his professional milestones, and the quickly mounting damage is alarmingly clear to see. Beginning with his experiences fossil-hunting as a young boy and moving through his memories of shooting renowned series like Life On Earth and Blue Planet, the broadcaster shares personal accounts of visiting some of the world’s remotest areas and communities. While there are certainly heart-warming moments to be found in the old footage (my personal favourite is a clip of him shouting "Boo!" at a sloth who is asleep in a tree), the film is far from a sugar-coated journey down memory lane.
Scientific data is woven in seamlessly as the scene changes to shots of the current landscapes and we hear about the individual abuses each environment has faced in the years since his visits, from mass deforestation in the Amazon to rising sea temperatures in the Arctic. Splicing together the footage with a present-day interview, it's clear from Sir David’s candour that this is his most personal film to date. Sitting quietly in a blacked out studio, his statements are disarmingly profound as he discusses humanity's absolute failure to protect our fragile ecosystem. You can hear his grief and disappointment at witnessing firsthand the decline of the natural world and it's this vulnerability that makes the film so incredibly moving as you watch Sir David dedicate his final years to fighting to protect the planet.
A Life On Our Planet may sound like an entirely bleak account of humankind’s destructive tendencies but the film’s screen time, split 50/50 between evidencing and action planning, comes together to create an uplifting and pragmatic latter half. Detailing practical steps towards sustainable living and the positive effects of restoring Earth’s biodiversity, you'll be left feeling genuinely hopeful for the planet’s future rather than distressed and disenfranchised. While tips about reducing food waste, switching to renewable energy and moving towards a plant-based diet might not feel revolutionary, hearing it broken down into bitesize pieces – and in Sir David's familiar soothing voice – makes the task at hand feel genuinely doable, which is rare for a large-scale documentary.
In the film’s final scenes we see the veteran presenter on location in Ukraine, walking through the bombed out buildings near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Against footage of the shrubbery and vines that have overgrown the derelict houses, Sir David talks about nature’s adaptability and determination to thrive in even the most difficult of environments. And in one of his final sentences, he hammers home the fragile existence of humankind: "The living world will endure, we humans cannot presume the same." I think I speak for us all when I say that I hope Sir David Attenborough continues to create documentaries for many years to come but if A Life On Our Planet is his last film, it tells us everything we need to know. We just have to listen.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet premieres Sunday 4th October on Netflix.