Review: Life On Our Planet (2023)

This new documentary being shown on Netflix consists of eight parts, each about 50 minutes long. It tells the story of the evolution of life, starting with the emergence of the very first cell around 3.8 billion years ago and going through various cycles of flourishing and mass extinctions until we got to where we are today. The series is narrated by the Morgan Freeman who seems to have become the go-to person when you need someone to ooze gravitas and convey authority. I felt that he was too unrelentingly solemn and portentous and could have lightened up the Voice of God tone from time to time.

The documentary describes the five major mass extinctions that have occurred.

Ordovician-silurian Extinction: 440 million years ago
Small marine organisms died out.

Devonian Extinction: 365 million years ago
Many tropical marine species went extinct.

Permian-triassic Extinction: 250 million years ago
The largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history affected a range of species, including many vertebrates.

Triassic-jurassic Extinction: 210 million years ago
The extinction of other vertebrate species on land allowed dinosaurs to flourish.

Cretaceous-tertiary Extinction: 65 million Years Ago

There were nice descriptions of how major cataclysmic events triggered the five mass extinctions and how life emerged after each, with the ones who were able to survive setting the direction of evolution. Many species of mammals and reptiles in our evolutionary history that I had never heard of before are mentioned as having gone extinct.

In each of the five mass extinctions, huge percentages of all species were lost (the Permian-triassic Extinction killed off about 95% while the Cretaceous-tertiary Extinction killed off about 50%), including the ones that were dominant at that time. This allowed for species that were small and had been forced to live in hiding or nocturnally to emerge into the open and flourish, thus dramatically changing the direction of evolution. We are most familiar with the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago and allowed small mammals to emerge and eventually become large but the same pattern was there for the other four extinctions as well.

As is often the case with nature documentaries, there is plenty of sex and violence as drivers of the evolutionary process. Animals often go through elaborate courtship rituals to attract mates and males sometimes fight with rivals to win the favor of females. Males will also fight with each other for dominance over the herd and over prey. Such clashes involving large predators make for dramatic viewing and are shown a lot using CGI.

The heavy focus on large animals and their competition for resources and mates results in other interesting things, like plants, being neglected. The vast diversity of plants and how that came about would have been something I would have liked to learn more about. For example, after the Earth was formed as a hot body and then cooled to become a large rock, the first plants to emerge from the oceans and occupy the land were the lichen. These rapidly covered the land and their roots broke up the barren rock and created the soil that we now have. But after describing this fascinating little tidbit about lichen that I had not been aware of before, the documentary abruptly zooms forward in time to show vast forests and tall trees and an enormous diversity, without much explanation of the processes by which it occurred. How plants then took over the Earth would have benefited from more discussion but they are viewed as resources for animals and not as worthy subjects in their own right on which to spend much time on, except for a short segment that looked at how insects and birds developed a symbiotic relationship with flowers that enabled both to flourish.

The documentary mixes CGI effects with contemporary wildlife footage. It is wonderfully done, so much so that you have to constantly remind yourself that much of it is CGI. When they are showing current life, it is not clear if that is real or CGI. The creators have done a wonderful job of visualizing the cataclysmic events that triggered upheavals and led to global fires, earthquakes, floods, ice ages,, desertification, and the like, and yet through all that, and even with massive die off of so many species, somehow life persists.

But the film warns us at the end that humans may be already in the process of causing the next mass extinction by the way we are changing the climate. It points out that unlike with the previous extinctions where all the life forms did not cause the dramatic changes in climate conditions that led to their demise and were caught unawares by it, we are now aware of our role in causing these changes and know what has to be done if we are not to go the way of past extinctions. (If you want to read more about that, a good book is The Sixth Extinction (2014) by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert.)

The series is well worth watching. When I watch documentaries like this, I wonder how religious people of various stripes react to them. God is never mentioned at all. It is simply assumed that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and all the life that we see came about by the working out of natural laws with no supernatural influence whatsoever. Also, the biblical story of creation is made to look so boring by comparison. Do religious people who believe in creationism avoid seeing documentaries like this or, if they do, dismiss it all as propaganda by atheist scientists?

Here’s the trailer.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the emergence of the very first cell around 3.8 billion years ago …

    Not so sure about that, though as it happens IANAPaleontologist.

    That matches the figure often given for first *life* on earth, but apparently cells as such took a while longer to evolve. My first search found lots of discussion about that, but it seemed relatively short on chronology (and long on, e.g., lipid chemistry and proto-membrane formation).

    Eventually I resorted to the pffft, which sayeth:

    4280–3770 Ma Earliest possible appearance of life on Earth.

    3900–2500 Ma Cells resembling prokaryotes appear.

    So it seems, unsurprisingly, that we have a very very (1.4 billion-year) fuzzy area to sort out here, perhaps more suited to the vocalizings of Paul Reubens than the intonations of Morgan Freeman.

  2. Silentbob says

    Back in my day (adjusts rocking chair) we had “Life on Earth” by David Attenborough. A series so successful, Attenborough spent the rest of his life trying to copy it, and a generation of mimics added his distinctive delivery to their repertoire.

    Life On Earth 03 of 13 The First Forests -- video Dailymotion

    Hopelessly dated production-wise obviously, but folks might still enjoy.

  3. says

    What gets me about creationists and such is how small their god is. An immortal being with no patience who slapped the world together in six days, it’s like someone who puts a few words into into an AI prompt and has their temerity to call themselves an “artist” versus someone who takes the time to mix a palette of colours and builds up on a canvas with hues and textures and strokes to paint something amazing. And I say this as someone who enjoys playing with Midjourney.

  4. brightmoon says

    Actually the Voice of God authoritarianism is perfect for conveying how completely the science community accepts evolution . Creationists like to say that we science literates use imprecise language which gives the creationists the impression that we don’t mean it

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