As the marketplace gets more crowded with each passing season, it’s become increasingly difficult for nature documentaries to simply capture wildlife as it is. Whether in response to the flurry of Attenborough-voiced tours through global habitats or as a way to just add an extra layer onto them, there’s become something of an arms race to take a well-established format and inject it with a few fresh angles.
Last year, Nat Geo’s “Hostile Planet” promised a less sanitized, more dangerous view of the ongoing interplay between predator and prey. A handful of series have emphasized their comprehensive scope, touting not just a view of the planet, but one that fixes its eye on each of the seven continents. To that growing list of hooks, add the new Netflix doc series “Night on Earth,” a six-part exploration of what happens in nature after the sun sets.
Unlike some of these other twists, this series’ distinguishing feature can’t come without some major visual changes to what audiences might be used to from these specials. Observing active nocturnal animals without the benefit of natural light leads “Night on Earth” to employ some different tech, including cameras that are extra sensitive to moonlight and a few variations on ones that can track heat as it moves across the horizon in recognizable animal shapes.
“Night on Earth” is far from the first nature-focused series to find and depict places and creatures on this planet that feel like vestiges from another galaxy. But there’s something about the way that certain images lean into unfamiliar color saturation or fixate on different animal textures that emphasize the idea to the point of fixation. Aside from a few orienting establishing shots here and there, many of these episodes commit so fully to this alien approach that it’s a legitimate surprise to be snapped back to reality when more traditional looks at various creatures start to sneak through.
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With less constrictions and expectations than comparable series, “Night on Earth” also plays with ideas of scale in addition to how these animals function in the wild. Drenched in a different kind of light and crossing terrain that gets more unrecognizable the more powerful the lens, “Night on Earth” affords each creature the same chance to fill the frame. Whether a closeup on a lion crossing flatland or a small mole on the prowl across mammoth grains of sand, it’s a democratizing approach to each animal’s plight that keeps the larger wild beasts from hogging the dramatic spotlight.
The only downside to this visual freedom is that the more traditional elements feel less necessary than usual. Samira Wiley is a savvy narrator, adding some light emotional shading to explanations of this unfamiliar nocturnal behavior. But the occasional emphasis on trying to psychoanalyze these creatures feels misplaced, especially when the baseline recurring impulse seems to be “SURVIVE.” Filling in understanding of the “how” in this case is far more effective than speculating on “why.”
There are a few tonal curveballs to be found in “Night on Earth.” Though much of the light-sensitive action centers on escaping danger (or luring unwitting victims into it), there are points when the show pauses to revel in the finer points of inter- and intra-species communication. The structure of one particular sequence highlighting mating techniques of a túngara frog stops just short of a multi-cam sitcom, a heavy dose of earned absurdity right before peril rears its slo-mo head once more.
The season’s penultimate episode also takes the unusual step of setting an entire chapter within major cities around the world. Venturing through parts of Singapore, Thailand, and the Pacific Northwest that are occupied by humans, “Night on Earth” maintains the animal POV, regarding the people driving and walking through the frame as passersby rather than kindred spirits. There are subtle suggestions toward the importance of conservation throughout most of the rest of the show — this installment’s message of responsible city planning seems like it’s coming a few decades too late, but maybe there’s a subconscious effect to be gained from being confronted with the way that certain species function when the vast majority of us aren’t looking.
For a show set primarily after sunset, there’s also a staggering amount of color here, too. The show could very easily lean on the core concept of bioluminescence, just tracking all the living things on jungle floors that glow in all forms of neon. In attempting to fill the screen with as much detail as possible, the tiny streaks that would otherwise get lost in a wider aerial view stand out here like tiny little phenomena. Again, this isn’t necessarily unique to “Night on Earth,” but the way it checks off those obligatory nature doc boxes situates the show consistently in an otherworldly feel. (Exhibit W: The trail of prismatic filament a jungle spider leaves behind is enough to make even the staunchest arachnophobes reconsider.)
So “Night on Earth” taps into one of the fundamental drives that’s sustained this prolonged nature doc boom in the first place. It scratches the human need to be reminded that there is more left to discover, that there are still some quasi-mystical elements of nature that science has barely had a chance to observe, much less explain. “Night on Earth” also sprinkles in some lingering views of plant life and other observable astronomical occurrences to show that an understanding of this ecosystem involves more than gawking at the fast and the large and the strong. Just like there’s no light without the dark, “Night on Earth” tries to live in the unexpected.
“Night on Earth” is now available to stream on Netflix.