When National Geographic’s nature series “Hostile Planet” débuted, in April, I avoided it for several reasons, chief among them the word “hostile.” The series is hosted by the British adventurer and TV personality Bear Grylls, known for swashbuckling feats of survival entertainment, which made me mildly suspicious, as did National Geographic’s ownership in recent years by Fox, which turned the magazine and the channel into for-profit entities. (This year, Fox and National Geographic were both subsumed by Disney.) It didn’t help that the show describes itself as “Not your mother’s nature series!”—an unnecessary slight, I felt, on both our mothers and their nature series. Each of the six episodes explores a different challenging climate—deserts, grasslands, oceans, and so on—and the merciless survival dramas among the animals within it, from hippos to pumas to great white sharks. Our mothers’ nature series also showed such struggles: if you’ve watched “Nova” or “Life on Earth,” you’ve seen some stuff, brother.
What finally made me cross the Rubicon of the show’s bluster was a video of some hummingbirds. In the “Jungles” episode, the camera zooms through a rain forest (on a drone, I later learned), and gets right up close to some emerald-green booted-racket-tail hummingbirds in the Ecuadorian Andes as they flit around seeking nectar. I wanted to follow these birds; where they led was a surprise. If you’ve been living in a bubble of politics, work, and HBO, watching fluffy ibex kids scrabbling their way down the thousand-foot cliff that they live on, looking for water, or baby elephants navigating their grasslands’ worst flooding in fifty years, has a revelatory effect.
Grylls, who has near-comical amounts of swagger, has said that the aim of “Hostile Planet” is to show the “raw, edgy side of what animals are battling.” Previously, he has shown us the raw, edgy side of what humans are battling. On “Bear Grylls: Survival School,” he dragoons a group of dubious-looking British schoolchildren (“Homesickness is hitting Bailey hard this morning”) to rappel across gorges, scale cliffs (“A top tip is to avoid grabbing grass that’s not likely to support your weight”), and eat beetle-larvae grubs served from a helmet (“Make sure you chew it, because these guys wiggle . . . you’re like a man mountain, Bailey!”). On “Man vs. Wild,” in the desert under the blazing sun, Grylls whips off his T-shirt, pees on it, and wraps it around his head. “It’s not very nice, but it will help me keep cool,” he says, forging on like a urine-soaked Lawrence of Arabia.
“Hostile Planet” avoids such Gryllsian spectacles—the animals are the stars. Grylls appears only briefly, bellowing information while stamping through a forest or kayaking lustily through the ocean. “The blue whale,” he says, intensely, as we watch one swim. “She’s as long as an eighteen-wheeler, with a heart as big as a car—and a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant.” It’s as if a monster-truck-rally commercial is providing you with useful facts about nature. The show is produced by the cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who won an Oscar for “Pan’s Labyrinth”; the camerawork is endlessly creative, patient, and observant, giving us an almost gossip-level awareness of individual animals’ triumphs and tragedies. At the beginning of a scene in Costa Rica, we’re shown the beach, and a turtle the size of a dinner plate flaps up out of the sand, triumphant, its expression blasé. It gives us a look. “Three days of digging, and this olive ridley turtle is free,” Grylls says, with a quiet urgency. (Later, I texted my friend a screenshot of two green turtles disaffectedly mating, their faces as expressionless as ancient underwater rocks. “SOML,” he replied.)
Grylls’s narration isn’t only unwittingly hilarious—dark narratives begins to emerge, and they involve us. “Alone. Inexperienced,” he says, as we watch a wide-eyed, rust-colored orangutan in a Malaysian rain forest climb a tree that stretches to the sky. “Life has never been tougher for this young orang.” (He and the orang don’t call each other by their formal names.) We see her perilous climb from several stunning camera perspectives: from above; from afar; from up close. Finding food at the height of the dry season is a struggle—and rainfall in the area has dropped by a third, Grylls says, with droughts more frequent.
It’s harder for gibbons, too; we watch as they swing gracefully from tree to tree looking for fruit, often in vain. As for hummingbirds, it’s tough enough already—“When you weigh less than a nickel, raindrops are a bombardment”—but now they live on the brink of starvation, and some need to visit “two thousand flowers a day just to keep going.” A hungry jaguar, who hasn’t eaten in days, lurks in a river, scoping out plump capybara. She briefly catches a giant, speckled, yellow anaconda—it’s an impressively spotty encounter—and then, astonishingly, wrestles a huge caiman alligator into submission and gives it a good chomp. “A kill this big has rarely been recorded,” Grylls breathes. “It will feed her for days.” A similar shocker happens in the “Polar”episode; desperate times make for compelling footage. “To witness wolves hunt musk oxen in winter is so rare it’s never been captured on camera—until now,” Grylls says, over mayhem involving fur, hunger, and ice.
These dramas have the quality of being both more real and more upsetting than much of what we watch for entertainment. Sometimes you can’t believe the harshness of what the producers let you witness: a soft baby bird trying to fly off a cliff, plunging like a stone, and bouncing. A thirsty hippo unable to cool off in an overcrowded mud pit, shut out by her peers. Calves, kids, and baby birds getting killed and eaten, their mothers unable to stop the carnage. Starvation, desperation, competition. Two male sea turtles trying to mate with a female, underwater, and not letting her up for air. But, of course, these dramas play out in the animal world every day—and many of them are intensified by what we’re doing to the environment. In “Polar,” footage of ice caps crumbling and crashing into the ocean feels like a beautiful horror movie.
National Geographic in 2019 is an odd blend of Hollywood, bombast, and the kind of tender observation and educational precision that distinguished the yellow-framed magazines we grew up with. In the case of “Hostile Planet,” dramatic music, exciting footage, and Grylls’s two-fisted narrative style is, I assume, meant to lure people in who might not otherwise care to watch a sea turtle slowly emerge from the sand. Once lured, the logic seems to follow, these viewers can be Gryllsed into thinking about animals’ fates on a warming planet. Is this effective? Take a guess. On Amazon, the comments section for the series is sharply divided between people who love its footage and its factual narration and people who love its footage and hate its “Liberal B.S.” “propaganda” “crap” “libtard” “global-warming hype.” Reading these comments, I wanted to make like our pal the young orang. In a downpour, as she’s pelted with driving rain, she takes a bunch of giant leaves and holds them over her head. “This orang has learned a lot from her mother,” Grylls says. “How to make a jungle umbrella.” Our mothers’ nature series were different: they documented a less overheated world.