Gorgeous 11-part series captures the beauty and pathology of nature

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

“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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LIFE

When: 8 p.m. EDT Sunday

Where: Animal Planet; Discovery; TLC

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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