Almost a century ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle showed The Lost World (1925), a film filled with prehistoric creatures, to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, and impishly refused to disclose the origin of the film. Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion dinosaurs were impressive enough to convince at least some of the audience that the footage might have been taken of real animals. Prehistoric Planet brings the same feeling of wonder to the modern era.
Years ago I wrote about how Jon Favreau really understood, in collaboration with the effects house MPC, how to communicate the beauty of the natural world in The Jungle Book (2016). With Prehistoric Planet, where he serves as an executive producer, he’s returned with MPC to apply his skills to bring dinosaurs to life in a way we’ve never seen before.
Prehistoric Planet, if nothing else, has a clear, singular vision of what it wants to be, and everything in the show is used in service of that vision. Even more so than programs with a similar premise, like Walking with Dinosaurs (1999), Prehistoric Planet sets out to be a 1:1 recreation of a natural history documentary, with the only difference being that the subjects are extinct animals rather than extant ones. And in that sense, it’s a perfect achievement.
BBC nature documentary veteran Mike Gunton and a talented team of cinematographers nail a perfectly imperfect aesthetic in Prehistoric Planet. Directors of photography on these kinds of shows don’t always have the luxury of ideal lighting or scene composition, but exert control through their use of framing. For example, while following the pterosaur Barbaridactylus, the animal flies partially out of the shot. As viewers, we can imagine that this is because the camera operator couldn’t quite keep up with it. In another sequence, the camera follows a running tyrannosaurid called Nanuqsaurus. As the animal slows down, the camera takes a moment to decelerate as if the cameraperson wasn’t anticipating the dinosaur’s sudden change in velocity. Sometimes the camera even “interacts” with the animals themselves. There’s one shot where the camera pans slowly to the right. As the camera’s video light falls across the face of one ammonite, it propels itself slightly backwards, as if bothered by the LED in its eyes. Details like this really help to sell the idea that the production team truly found some way to travel back in time and capture these fantastical images for real.
But of course, none of this matters without the creatures themselves. The dinosaurs and other animals are what we’re here to see, and I can say without a doubt that these are some of the best dinosaurs ever rendered in a visual medium. Ever since The Lost World (1925)’s groundbreaking animation, visual effects have advanced to breathtaking levels of photorealism — but so too have audiences’ expectations. Technically competent effects are considered a given for most big budget projects, and it takes true artistry for computer generated characters to stand out these days. But even amid a sea of CG creations, the creatures of Prehistoric Planet shine bright.
The computer generated artwork on display here is as good as it possibly can be in 2022. Creatures are expertly rendered into real-world environments, matching the natural splendor of these backgrounds frame for frame, whether it’s water lapping against a T. rex’s scaly skin, or fire reflected in a bird-like troodontid’s eye. One excellent way that this is accomplished is by having the animals interact with their surroundings. Many of these interactions use real footage alongside animation, such as disturbances to foliage. A baby T. rex runs up and down a beach, leaving behind footprints and kicking up sand. Hadrosaurs trudge arduously through deep snow. A Carnotaurus lowers his head to the forest floor, and the leaf litter flutters slightly at his breath. Perhaps the show’s greatest trick is convincing us that entities made of pixels with no actual substance look like they weigh several tons, an astounding feat for the series. The best display of this is when a 10 ton T. rex tries to flip over a two ton dead sea turtle. His toes curl, he sinks into the sand, and you can see the strain on his thigh muscles as he pushes his hardest, finally overturning the carcass and rewarding himself with a mouthful of dinner.
Part of this accomplishment also lies in the dinosaurs’ design, of which we have a small army of paleontologists and paleoartists to thank. The general, charging into battle at the very head of this army with all the relish of King Theoden, is Dr. Darren Naish. Naish is a paleontologist with a passion for how dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are portrayed in art. He believes strongly that science, artistry, and imagination must work together to realize prehistoric animals with all the wonder and beauty of living ones. Therefore, reconstructions must be grounded in fossil evidence as much as possible, and that only where the evidence is lacking should speculation — often based on modern animals – take over.
In many ways, Prehistoric Planet is an adaptation of Naish’s credo. Indeed, there are some moments — such as the twirling arms of the Canotaurus, or the Freudian displays of the Tuarangisaurus — that are direct recreations of ideas Naish has previously published. The scenes pulling from specific hypotheses put forward in the field offer some of the series’ most memorable images. An especially impressive example is the portrayal of inflatable sacs running down the necks of Dreadnoughtus. It’s a fittingly bizarre visual that makes already spectacular animals even more unique. Other highlights include the celestial ballet of the bioluminescent ammonites, sexual mimicry in Barbaridactylus, and troodontids spreading wildfires to smoke out prey. Prehistoric Planet’s dinosaurs exhibit these amazing abilities and behaviors that would be outlandish if not for the fact that they are known to exist in the animal world today.
Some scientists have raised objections to anatomical or behavior depictions in Prehistoric Planet. But Prehistoric Planet is only one plausible recreation of an Age of Reptiles among a finite but still vast array of possibilities. The series’ more speculative nature helps expand our notions of these creatures. If the creatures lacked their flamboyance, and were all dull, earth-toned beasts that did little besides walk around, eat, sleep, and mate, the series would obscure that nature was as weird and wonderful millions of years ago as it is today. This would not only be wrong, but also totally boring — a disservice to not only these lost worlds, but to the audiences who want to see them.
Prehistoric Planet is so powerful specifically because it feels so alive. Its creatures do weird things because that’s what wild animals who don’t care about the people watching them do. They think, they feel, they act. And even more impressively, they do so without ever feeling anthropomorphized. There are no tears, no expressive eyebrows, no smiles or frowns. The animals are restrained by their reptilian facial musculature, and yet the animators are able to inspire character from them. A tyrannosaur contemplates the loss of his chick with little more than a blink. A Carnotaurus awaits the decision of his prospective mate by staring straight upwards, breathlessly. It may not always be clear what these creatures are thinking or feeling, but it’s also plain to see that they are thinking and feeling, and the show invites us to participate in the experience. Their thoughts and feelings are their own, and the show never demonstrates the need to project humanity onto them.
Prehistoric Planet occasionally adheres too closely to nature documentary tropes. In traditional series like Planet Earth, the imagery is constrained by whatever footage is on hand, and narrativization has to accommodate these limitations. But why carry this over into Prehistoric Planet? For example, in the second segment of “Forests,” we see a young Triceratops get separated from his herd while they move underground. It first appears as though we’re about to follow the lone calf as he tries to make his way back to his family through the pitch black. But moments later, we abruptly cut back to the herd to see them munching on clay lichs as the calf emerges out of nowhere, completely dissolving the tension.
These lapses would be more forgivable in typical wildlife shows because we understand that the creators have to work with real animals in all of their unpredictability. One can imagine how the filmmakers, in filming the Triceratops calf, might have considered following it, but instead made the choice to return to the herd since that’s what they came to film. But in Prehistoric Planet, everything — the animals, the environments, the scenarios — is completely fabricated. Why not take advantage of this to help the stories flow more naturally?
Part of the problem is the show’s structure. Each episode is approximately forty minutes long, broken into six segments, which means that, on average, each segment gets six minutes. While some segments make effective use of their limited time, others simply don’t. They end too abruptly, spend too much time on things that don’t connect — like natural history B-roll — or lack meaning or context. Yes, it’s beautiful to see all these animals gathered in this small oasis… but what’s the point? We haven’t spent any time with them otherwise.
David Attenborough’s narration does mitigate some of the flab. There aren’t too many 96-year-olds who I would describe as boyish, but that’s the word that comes to mind every time he appears on-screen to introduce an episode. His work in the series brings an authority that furthers the program’s verisimilitude , and he sounds absolutely delighted throughout the whole show. It’s hard not to smile when listening to him, especially since he is almost certainly smiling during his recordings.
Still, sometimes Attenborough’s narration neglects to mention certain pieces of information, or misstates the facts. In “Forests,” for instance, Attenborough tells us that the frills of Triceratops are used “for protection when they fight,” which has to be a flub given that Naish has been one of the most vocal champions for the idea that structures such as these evolved as a result of sexual selection. Nevertheless, Attenborough’s relaxed, joyful tones — complemented by a largely effective, if occasionally overbearing, soundtrack — help to satisfy that appetite for wonder that audiences have had since his brother first welcomed us to Jurassic Park in 1993.
Prehistoric Planet makes one simple promise to its audience — that you are going to see dinosaurs doing dinosaur things in a dinosaur world. If that’s what you’re here to see, you’re going to be quite happy. Occasional storytelling inelegance notwithstanding, Prehistoric Planet achieves heights of success not seen since its subjects dominated the planet some 66 million years ago.