Africa (2012) Blu-ray Review: Remarkable, Vast, Deadly Wilderness, Now in High Definition

Sir David Attenborough and the BBC Earth team are at it again, capturing some unbelievable footage in high definition and bringing it home to you. After the inspiring Planet Earth series, I had high expectations going into Africa: Eye to Eye With the Unknown, and was not disappointed.

This four-year endeavor has captured some amazing feats of adaptation, as animals continue their rock-paper-scissors tug of war within the food chain. I learned a lot along the way. Armored ground crickets can spray their stinky blood at their predators as if it were pepper spray, but one wrong move and a wounded cricket falls prey to his own kind. Penguins who haphazardly ended up populating the Cape of Good Hope lay on their eggs not to keep them warm, but to shield them from the blistering African sun, a task trying to all but the hardiest of the birds. Butterflies who struggle to find mates in the dense jungles of Mozambique fly upstream to the top of Mount Mabu where hundreds may be found with the same intent. I also was not aware that giraffes could outrun lions, and that rhinos could easily tell lions to shove off. Even in the scorched earth of the Sahara, silver ants have developed reflective skin to keep the sun from cooking them alive, and can move at incredible speeds to ensure they don’t have to be exposed above ground for very long — their movement estimated to be the equivalent of a human being running at upwards of 270mph.

On the other hand, you’ll learn of some of the unpleasant realities of “survival of the fittest.” Shoebill birds that have more than one offspring will favor the strongest among them, leaving the others completely on their own to starve. Insects fleeing wildfires in the Savannah are plucked right out of the air by local avians, the same way that hawks and eagles prey on bats during their mass migrations. Watching baby sea turtles scamper from their nests down the beach, only to get picked off in great numbers by crabs and soaring black kites (predatory birds, not kids’ toys) is a little sad, as was watching a mother elephant have to choose between keeping up with the herd or falling behind to try to care for her exhausted and starving baby. If she moves on, the baby will surely die; if she waits, she will have a much tougher time crossing the barren deserts alone. Despite the situation, she does something more humane than you might expect.

Combined with great luck in finding the right animals at the right moment, the technology used to capture this footage is nothing short of state of the art. Starlight cameras can capture clear grayscale images when virtually no light exists in the environment. This allowed the team to capture brilliant footage of rhinos socializing (previously thought to be very isolated animals) at a Kalahari watering hole, and gators sneaking up on schools of fish in a desert oasis in the dark of night. Making starlight cameras remote controlled allowed one member to perch in a tree and get multiple angles of elephant migrations through the Congo long after all the guides had left for safer surroundings. They didn’t take well to his being there the first few nights, though, resulting in attempts to knock him out of the tree.

Stationary cameras were deployed in the Sahara to capture something that has never been filmed before — the sand migrations among the dunes. Stitching together one image per day from several cameras across a year and a half, you’ll see the sand move the way waves crash on a beach, completely altering the landscape in a matter of hours or days. No wonder it’s hard finding your way out of the desert. Other cameras in the Sahara caught different angles of an approaching sandstorm in such a way that, if anyone else were doing it, I’d have thought it was CGI.

One of the thing that’s continually amazing about the work BBC Earth does is how close they can get to their subjects without seemingly interfering with or affecting what’s happening right in front of them. Did you know that sharks have manners? When it comes to chowing down on a whale carcass, there’s definitely a pecking order that is respected by all the dozens of sharks in the vicinity, and the film crew is somehow right there in the middle of it. Of course, this closeness to the action presents some tough moral and ethical dilemmas for the crew as well. Should they interfere when they could help an animal survive, or do they capture nature as, for lack of a better term, “nature intended,” with no human intervention? It’s a tough call, and in some cases they really can’t do anything to help, but fortunately, there is someone who can.

Local tribes have responded to both poaching and the explosive growth of humanity in Africa, creating parks and preserved areas where they know the animals most frequently appear. However, migration patterns and weather changes often force the creatures into different areas. Conservation teams are doing their best to curb the expansion of man and provide safe havens for as many species as they can. The Maasai tribe, who used to hunt lions as a rite of passage, are now working to preserve and build their numbers. Locals to the shore are working to ensure more and more sea turtles make it to the ocean. Underpasses have been built under major roads to allow safe passage for elephants in search of food. The last episode of the series entitled “The Future” covers these efforts up close on the ground and in detail.

Episodes about Kalahari, Savannah, Congo, Cape, and Sahara are all documented beautifully, and narrated with gravitas by Sir David Attenborough. He also appears in a handful of scenes, most often in the “Eye to Eye” behind-the-scenes that makes up the last 10 minutes of each hour-long episode that give a fascinating look at how the team tracks down the scenes they most wanted to capture and the techniques used to film them.

A couple of points to be aware of. First, there is some discussion of how climate change is affecting the weather patterns and geography of Africa, as well as how the animals have had to respond. Attenborough states these points very matter-of-factly and leaves no room for doubt. Hardcore climate-change deniers may get their feathers ruffled by this. Second, primarily two things happen in the wilderness — mating and killing. While the violence is mostly hinted at and not graphically depicted, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re going to watch this with kids around. Same thing with the mating scenes — it’s not gratuitous, but if smaller ones are going to be in the room, it could initiate conversations about the birds and the bees you’re not ready for.

The two-disc Blu-ray set contains all the same extras as the DVD package — crew interviews including Attenborough and producer Michael Gunton, as well as outtakes and footage from Ethiopia and Djibouti that didn’t make the final cut. This is a terrific series that has easily earned its place on my shelf next to Planet Earth. Africa really deserves to be viewed in the clarity of 1080p high definition on a big screen, but if you’re not equipped for Blu-ray playback, Brandie reports that it’s very well worth watching on DVD as well.

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Mark Buckingham

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