Nov 17, 2013

Best Nature Documentaries that Touch Our Spirit

Sure, Hollywood has created some fabulous films using incredible actors, well-written scenes, and emotional moments that leave us laughing hysterically or tearing up despite our best efforts to remind ourselves it’s only a movie. But there are some films that aren’t only movies, which do more than just reflect human culture, by actually studying and reporting on the dangerous and mysterious world around us - and no, I’m not speaking of any of the Housewives reality shows.

In the end, there is no movie that comes close to the visual and emotional roller coaster ride that a well-done nature documentary can take viewers through. As human beings, whose curiosity has led directly to any and all of the educational advancements we have today, we are enthralled by the wild, unrestrained lives of the creatures we share this planet with. Especially now, with climate change and pollution threatening habitats and ecosystems everywhere, wildlife and nature documentaries can both educate us and help open our eyes to the world we might be in danger of losing.

If you’re looking to revisit some of the best nature documentaries, consider some of what I believe are at the top of the list. If after this list, you’re still searching for documentaries that will both leave your eyes and brain in a state of awe, one of your best bets is to look for anything hosted by David Attenborough, who has covered everything from insect life (Life in the Undergrowth) to plants (The Private Life of Plants) birds, mammals, reptiles, and  more. For newer shows and streaming documentaries the best sources are the Science Channel, BBC, the Discovery Channel, the Smithsonian Channel, the latter of which is unfortunately available only on DirecTV, or of course, Netflix and Amazon, which have many of the most popular shows on this list.

Planet Earth

I’m sure we can all remember the year Planet Earth,  the 2006 documentary that took over five years to film, arrived. It was the first nature documentary to be entirely filmed in high definition, and when Christmas came about, it was guaranteed that at least one person had splurged on a DVD copy for everyone in the family. The hype around Planet Earth wasn’t undeserved. If you have time, watch the mini-documentary “making of” segments to see exactly how difficult some of these filming locations were to get to, and how often the film crew placed themselves in more than precarious situations. This documentary series is also one of the most well rounded to ever be created, since each episode focuses on a particular area (examples are Ocean, Mountain, Desert, and my favorite, Polar).

Wonders of the Solar System, Cosmos, Through the Wormhole

For space fans, the Carl Sagan-hosted TV series, Cosmos, though filmed in 1980, is still one of the best tours of this vastly unknown world. The series won a primetime Emmy, likely do to the mass audience appeal of the show. Unlike textbooks, Carl Sagan is able to speak in terms that are understandable even if you slept through every science class since the first grade. Sagan also explores origins of life, possible life on Mars, and how Earth could be the next Venus.

For a more recent exploration into the stars, another option is Wonders of the Solar System, which was co-produced by BBC and the Science Channel. This five episode series was first aired in the UK, culminating in a final episode on aliens, and the search for life elsewhere. A third option is the currently airing Through the Wormhole, created by the Science Channel which attempts to resolve, or at least theorize about the biggest questions that humans ask today, such as “Is there a Creator?” and “Where did the universe come from?” The result is mind blowing, and has the added bonus of being narrated by Morgan Freeman, who many consider to have the voice of God already.

Evolution and Human Planet

Many think that nature documentaries solely focus on the obscure in nature - either plants, space or animals. However, there are two stand outs that look at our own arrival, and how we humans have grown and developed all over the world. After all, we are the only species that populates every continent. The first is Evolution, which received too little appreciation when PBS aired it in 2001. The eight-hour miniseries discusses all areas of evolution, from Darwin’s original ideas, to extinction, to why the human mind suddenly broke out and advanced at previously unheard of rates. A second great documentary is Human Planet. This documentary, too, takes a hard look at humans, and how we have evolved and are still evolving to create lives for ourselves on almost every possible habitat this planet holds. This series looks at how humans have adapted to extreme areas, like deep jungles of South America, the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, and even the island archipelagos of Indonesia.

Author Bio: Elizabeth Eckhart is a entertainment and film blogger for She writes primarily about movies, but sometimes dabbles in literature as well. 

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