A movie culled from television, One Life is a nature documentary adapted from thousands of hours of footage by the BBC’s Natural History Unit. This turns out to be some astute repurposing, with the high-definition images (many from David Attenborough’s Life series) gaining a new charge from the luxurious theatrical size, immersing us in the strange natural world around us.
Many of the clips are familiar nature documentary favourites: the Central American basilisk, aka the Jesus Christ lizard, which runs on the surface of the water; the elaborate courtship dances of Clark’s Grebes; or a “bait ball” of panicked fish, being picked off by birds from above.
Otherwise, One Life has something of a split personality. What’s before our eyes suggests we share the planet with some amazingly strange beings. What comes to our ears, through the narration by Daniel Craig, is an anthropomorphized, kid-friendly perspective that sees a world full of hard-working families, looking for love, raising kids and trying to survive.
We start with a series of examples of dedicated mothers. A seal lies on an Antarctic glacier, shielding her offspring from the raging blizzard. In Costa Rica, a red poison arrow frog (described as a “dedicated single mother”), the size of a human fingernail, watches until her eggs hatch, then carries the tadpoles, one at a time, high up into a tree, to deposit them in a water-filled leaf. Not that all parents are perfect.
In Africa, we meet a young mother elephant who almost causes her baby to drown in a mud hole until the grandmother barges in, shoves the inept mother out of the way and drags the calf to safety. The ultimate sacrificing mom is the great octopus off the coast of British Columbia, who starves while overseeing her eggs and dies shortly after they hatch.
Another chapter focuses on different animals’ ingenious solutions to food-gathering. Argentine grass-cutter ants use underground fungus to digest their food for them. The Ethiopian vulture drops bones from great heights to crack them, while Brazilian capuchin monkeys, our tool-using cousins, have discovered a technique of cracking palm nuts with rocks.
That leads us to the grimmest chapter, about predators and their prey, where the film leaves no doubt which side we’re on. A Madagascar chameleon munching on a praying mantis is all in good fun, but a trio of cheetahs pulling down a fluffy female ostrich is pathetic. An Indonesian Komodo dragon, who dooms a water bison to a lingering death with one nip, seems a creature out of nightmares.
We wrap up our globe-trotting survey with tales of mating. A female humpback whale rolls in the water, sending out her scent and encouraging males to fight to win her. The elegant grebes do a mating dance. A stag beetle defeats a chain of rivals while climbing a tree to mate. All this leads to a resounding endorsement of heterosexual monogamy. Animals and humans, we are all told, “dream of finding the perfect partner, the love of our life,” and “every living creature on our planet shares the same desire – not just to live but to foster new life.”
Of course, anyone with a rudimentary awareness of the spectrum of human and animal behaviour knows, to quote the Gershwin brothers’ song, it ain’t necessarily so. Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man saw only “the overwhelming indifference of nature.” The hilariously irreverent YouTube series Randall’s Wild World of Animals (“honey badger don’t care”) shows animals in the wild acting with contemporary urban sass.
Art is supposed to hold a mirror up to nature. Typically, nature documentaries are a mirror held up to the values of their makers.
- Written and directed by Michael Gunton and Martha Holmes
- Classification: G
- 3 stars