Top positive review
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500 million years superbly summed up in two hours
on 4 October 2013
This is a short, two episode but thoroughly enjoyable series which uses recent paleontological discoveries - many of them from China - to tell the story of human evolution, from an alternative different angle to the normal approach.
Over two hours, Attenborough uses fossils, CGI, diagrams and filming of contemporary equivalents / offspring to illustrate the pathway from primitive fish, to amphibians and reptiles; then dinosaurs and birds; mammals, primates and finally us. Never one to hog the limelight he frequently involves the specialists who've revealed new knowledge, buried deep in ancient rock. The creatures featured range from tiny little fish to the megafauna; there's a detailed explanation of how and why humans ended up being warm-blooded placental mammals - not to mention how we got eyes, ears, lungs and so forth. Don't expect anything here to disagree with Darwin!
The filming, as you'd expect, is top-quality. It veers away from the pointlessly dramatic helicopter-filming-helicopter type shots (the sound-track is pretty low-key, too), but we're still treated to some gorgeous landscapes and an array of awesome fossil remains. The photography is mercifully free of that fashionable `blurred edge' soft-focus fad, which many documentary makers seem unable to resist at the moment...
Attenborough remains on top form. A bit less agile than he used to be, but still as engaging as ever; able to express complex concepts without patronising the audience or over-simplifying the subject.
Some of the animated sections are wonderfully wonky. The first flying dinosaur looks like it escaped from ToyStory, but the CGI of a wee skeletal rodent being brought to life to run around Attenborough's hand is ridiculously cute. Ditto the moment when a warm-blooded puppy does its best to play with a cold-blooded lizard in an inspired moment of table top filming to demonstrate the difference between the two.
I didn't find the map-of-evolution very helpful either, but then, it's not exactly a straightforward thing to try to represent all known species on a 2D timeline...
Short but very sweet, then: an admirable lesson to many film-makers in how to cram a huge amount of information into a petite package. Some people would have spun this out of six episodes and filled the gaps with endless repetition and 'presenter treks across Gobi desert' moments. Applause all round for an altogether more accomplished package - one which ably uses modern animation to make dry old bones entirely interesting.