While “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was divisive for its storytelling, most everyone could agree that porgs are adorable. The fictional sea birds (or are they rodents?) from a galaxy far, far away captured the audience’s imagination, as did the other fascinating fauna created for that universe. Hell, even those fish nuns inspired devotion in unexpected quarters.
But let’s not forget that the “Star Wars” bestiary has always been inspired by real-life creatures, and there are clear puffin influences in the porg design. In fact, “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II” reminds us that the creatures we find in our natural world are so ingeniously designed that they simply blow porgs out of the water — so to speak.
“Blue Planet II” boasts fish that are transgender; that live on land; that use tools. And that’s just the beginning of the fascinating stories found in the docu-series. Make no mistake that these are stories, albeit true ones, that have been painstakingly crafted for maximum effect with a strong narrative and often surprising elements that we’d hate to spoil here. And yes, some of the revelations are just so shocking, so unbelievable, and so viscerally impactful that they indeed can be (but should not be) spoiled.
Boosting the already riveting piscine storytelling are stunning visuals that were not easy to obtain. The ocean is a massive playground to film, and the crashing of massive waves, the frenzied feedings, and the constant flow of traffic are challenges in themselves to capture. And then there are time-lapse sequences with sauntering starfish and creepy sea cucumbers that look like they’d be at home in a Tim Burton stop-motion sequence. And down below in the deep, creatures that defy comprehension are haunting images of an alien life.
Add to that David Attenborough’s sage and reassuring narration and a score that deserves to be experienced live. Hans Zimmer, along with Bleeding Fingers’ Jacob Shea and Jasha Kleme, have created a soundtrack that is nothing short of masterful in how it’s able to translate the drama of the underwater realm into pure emotion. And yes, watching “Blue Planet II” is about as emotionally affecting as any drama. Be prepared to drop choice bits of profanity, jump out of your seat, scream at slow birds, and get royally stressed-out by selfish walruses. The series is just as full of tension, joy, and heartbreak as it is full of wonders.
As with many nature docs, “Blue Planet II” could be accused of anthropomorphizing these animal behaviors, but even without embellishment, viewers cannot help but be moved by what these animals endure on a daily basis. The puffin parent may travel anywhere from three hours roundtrip to find a fish to feed its young — adorably named a puffling — only to have that fish be snatched from its beak at the last moment by other birds that aren’t as hard-working. Humans observing this see the injustice in the situation, and it’s absolutely infuriating. The difference is that instead of wringing its wings and crying foul (“fowl”?), the puffin simply must try again. Over and over again, we see evidence of how these animals nevertheless persist, demonstrating admirable traits that could be seen as heroic.
This brings us to how shabbily humans come off in contrast. “Blue Planet II” does not mince its words. “We’ve also recognized an uncomfortable fact: the health of our oceans is under threat,” Attenborough says in the very first episode. “They’re changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history. Never has there been a more crucial time to reveal what’s going on beneath the surface of the seas.” Just as the series dazzles viewers with natural wonders, it also points out how humans are the biggest threat to the very things we’re admiring. Each episode notes some sort of effect we’ve had — the overfishing, the rise in ocean temperature from the use of fossil fuels, the pollution — and the final episode focuses completely on the destruction we’ve wrought.
It’s a deliberate and humbling slap in the face to end the series in such a way that turns the focus back on the viewer. “Blue Planet II” isn’t just about fish or things living near oceans; it’s also about us and how we decide to respond to what we’ve seen.
While this review began by pointing out how people can go gaga over fictional creatures, it’s not meant to malign “Star Wars” in general or porgs in particular. But instead, it’s a clumsy attempt at what “Blue Planet II” does so skillfully, which is provide perspective. Its message, and the methods it employs to deliver it, makes this the most important television on right now.
“Planet Earth: Blue Planet II” will premiere on Saturday, Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. ET, simulcast on AMC, Sundance, IFC, WE tv, and BBC America.