Earth Day was set up in conjunction with the growing environmental movement, and after 44 years that remains the main purpose of the occasion. But we can also think of this day as a time to celebrate the planet like it’s her birthday. Happy 4.54 billionth, Earth! Again!
Therefore I’d like to not just devote the day to listing environmental issue films. Instead, I’ve compiled the best documentaries about Earth, as in the planet is the subject and these are portraits of her, both negative and positive. It’s a fairly brief list, because there aren’t a whole lot of nonfiction films qualified as being about or of the whole world. And I don’t want to just include them all just to fill the space, even though most of them are pretty good.
I highly recommend all seven of the following nonfiction films to everyone living on Earth, which should be all of you (if not, hello extraterrestrial readers!), because it’s a good idea to know your home.
This 1992 feature from Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, is not supposed to be about anything. It’s just intended to give us a feeling. If we were to find meaning in the lengthy montage of mostly religious scenes, it might be man’s spiritual relationship with the planet and the ongoing evolution of Earth and its residents, a world in flux. Not necessarily concerned about any environmental issues, the film, which was shot on six of the seven continents over 24 countries, is more content with the way things are going, changing — equally focused on progress and decay. It’s understood that what we see here is not permanent, and Fricke and producer Mark Magidson make no attempt to mourn that which will be lost, perhaps because it is not lost yet will live on in the images they’ve captured. Their 2011 follow-up, Samsara, continues that idea with footage from 25 countries and only five continents, though it’s more about the cycle of life.
Written, edited and narrated by Toni Myers, the name in IMAX space documentaries, and directed by four-time-Oscar-winning sound effects editor Ben Burtt (Star Wars; E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), this 1990 short was made for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Unlike most of the documentaries produced by this division of IMAX, Blue Planet is not about any space missions or space stations or space exploration or astronauts. It focuses on the planet below as shot from various shuttles in orbit. Obviously, you’ll want to see this on a true IMAX screen for the optimal appreciation of those shots. There is also footage filmed from the ground and helicopters and underwater, plus a bit of computer animation. Myers tells us all kinds of things about Earth, from its geological history and makeup, weather, and the thousands of years of climate change that has created much of the terrain. Much of it seems to justify the need for satellites that help us understand and monitor the planet.
Consisting of aerial footage shot all over the world, this feature from photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand has some material as stunning as anything you’d see in Ron Fricke’s films. The big difference is in its heavy use of narration — Glenn Close voices the U.S. release — giving it all the context of an issue film. The documentary covers some of the history of man on Earth and what we’ve done to the planet, as in environmental harm. We’re meant to see the interconnectedness of all the world, and we’re reminded that our species is supposed to be the “wise man.” Armand Amar’s score is like fake Philip Glass and the whole production is obviously heavy-handed, but Arthus-Bertrand’s explicit take on a Qatsi-type movie, concerned as it is for the health of Earth, like a cancer issue doc might be for one or more human lives, is very effective in the selling of its message — and not just because it was made free on YouTube as part of its attempt to easily reach as many people around the globe.
Life in a Day
The title is a phrase that is typically used for movies that follow a character over a single 24 hour period, and that certainly applies to this 2011 crowdsourced documentary produced by Ridley Scott and curated by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September). The character here is Earth, and we see a good percentage of her as she experiences good times and bad. There is birth and death and everything in between, some of it quite mundane and some of it rather amazing. Although comprised of thousands of amateur filmmakers’ footage shot on July 24, 2010, it’s ultimately Macdonald’s film for the way he’s pieced it all into a spellbinding 90 minutes, with help from editor Joe Walker, who just earned an Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave. Hardly a random montage of clips shot around the world, it’s a much more expressive and illuminating look at the planet than the earlier A Moment on Earth and the later One Day on Earth.
While a lesser film compared to its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, this 1988 sequel from Godfrey Reggio is actually global in scope while the first film sticks with the United States. Powaqqatsi is also a more human-centric feature, mainly focusing on people of the Third World and their exploitation by the first. The title means “life in transformation” and indicates a look at Earth’s citizens during a major transition all-around towards industrialization, though it can also mean “parasitic way of life,” and in a way, we can look at this film as concentrated on Earth’s parasites. Even if not all of the content in this installment is amazing, the opening sequence at the Brazilian gold mine Serra Pelada is hypnotic and worth the weight of everything that follows. Philip Glass’s score for Powaqqatsi, with its appropriately more world-music influences, is arguably better than his score for Koyaanisqatsi.
Secrets of Life
Long before the Disneynature brand kicked off a new series of documentaries about the environment and wildlife, Disney had the True-Life Adventures banner, of which Secrets to Life was the 11th. Written and directed by James Algar, shot by time-lapse pioneer John Ott and narrated by John Huston, it’s a whimsically educational look at life on Earth, specifically plants, bees, and underwater creatures, plus volcanic activity, which can represent how the planet itself grows and survives. While more than a half a century later Disneynature’s Earth would have greater cinematography (and nobody should have any criticism against it being repurposed footage) and a more relevant title, that is a doc with comparatively limited locations and subjects. Secrets to Life might not show us the entire planet, but it shows us enough in microcosmic form.
¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Most documentaries about Earth are, for the most part, familiar. We’ve seen shots from space and footage from around the globe, of different places and cultures, but while the other four on this list do have a lot of unique and remarkable pieces, none blew my mind the way Victor Kossakovsky’s gimmicky 2011 experiment. None made me look at and think of the planet in new ways as much as this one. Kossakovsky presents eight specific locations around the globe, distinctly paired up into four sets of antipodal (diametrically opposite) spots, including rural Argentina and urban Shanghai and the plains of Botswana and an actively volcanic part of Hawaii. The Russian filmmaker goes above and beyond the conceit, though, to cleverly play around with the footage, giving us upside-down shots superimposed and intertwined with right-side-up landscapes, joining together the antipodes with the perspective of how the opposing settings might look if we scooped out all the insides of the Earth. It’s a fun and magnificent film, simultaneously working the mind and the eyes.
Special Mention: The Films of Werner Herzog
As the only person to make films on all seven continents, Werner Herzog deserves a bit of recognition for giving us a collection of works that can together be accepted as being about Earth as a whole. The notable nonfiction entries to add up for this purpose are:
Africa: The Flying Doctors of East Africa, Wodaabe — Herdsmen of the Sun, La Boheme, Echoes from a Somber Empire
Antarctica: Encounters at the End of the World
Asia: The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Jag Mandir, Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wheel of Time, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Australia: Where the Green Ants Dream (hybrid fiction/doc)
Europe: Handicapped Future, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Bells from the Deep, The Transformation of the World Into Music, Death for Five Voices, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pilgrimage
North America: How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, Huie’s Sermon, Ballad of the Little Soldier, Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss, La Soufriere, Pilgrimage
South America: Wings of Hope, The White Diamond, Ten Thousand Years Older
This list was originally published on April 22, 2014.