Prehistoric Planet merges Jurassic Park thrills with David Attenborough’s wisdom
Jurassic Park makes you fear the reptilian mammoths of Earth's past. Prehistoric Planet makes you wish you lived among them.
While Jurassic Park and its sequels have been reminding you for three decades that reviving dinosaurs is an inherently bad idea, Apple TV+’s Prehistoric Planet makes a convincing argument for booking a safari into the past.
Each episode in the five-part documentary series sparks an insatiable desire to see these scaly behemoths nurturing their young, hunting, fighting for status, and occasionally swallowing pebbles. Suddenly, Triceratops are rendered cuddly and Tyrannosaurus rexes tender.
Luckily, Prehistoric Planet, scored by Hans Zimmer and produced by the BBC studio behind Planet Earth, lets us peer into the day-to-day of the dinosaurs from a safe distance. The result is utterly enchanting, and educational.
A documentary and a work of art
Unlike most nature documentaries, which rely on real-life footage of the flora and fauna, computer-generated imagery was required to make the Carnotauruses and Velociraptors of Prehistoric Planet come to life.
Portraying the behaviors of animals that roamed our deserts, forests, waters, and tundras eons ago is as colossal an undertaking as the subjects themselves. Prehistoric Planet has been in development for over a decade, and it shows.
Inverse reporter Tara Yarlagadda scrutinized the “reel science” of Prehistoric Planet in an interview with series showrunner Tim Walker and chief scientific consultant and zoologist Darren Naish. The key behind illustrating the mindboggling pre-human world as accurately as possible lies in the information that can be extracted from extensive fossil records, what paleobiologists have confirmed from studying these records, and “bracketing,” or drawing comparative references based on the behavior of living relatives of these extinct species.
The result is a truly breathtaking display of CGI that feels authentic and looks like Apple TV+ sent a bold crew millions and millions of years into the past. Prehistoric Planet is a modern magic show; we know we’re being “tricked” into seeing images that are manipulated, but we’re happy to see the rabbit being pulled out of the hat.
Prehistoric Planet’s dinosaurs may require some suspension of disbelief to forget that you’re not seeing genuine video, but only some. It’s easy to get lost in the stunning imagery produced by The Moving Picture Company (who will likely sweep awards in VFX categories), and you’ll learn quite a lot about dinosaurs too.
Jon Favreau and David Attenborough are a perfect pair
A crucial element in making the illusion of Prehistoric Planet successful as a documentary that aims to both stupefy and teach is the use of renowned historian Sir David Attenborough.
I watched some footage of the series in Spanish and Portuguese, and the sorcery is partially lost without Attenborough’s narration, which has been featured in famous nature documentaries ranging from The Blue Planet to The Private Life of Plants. There’s something special about a familiar and trustworthy voice guiding you through a landscape of Jurassic oddities. With Attenborough, Prehistoric Planet is more than just a feast of impressive CGI, pushing the show past popcorn and into academic terrain.
Prehistoric Planet is also bolstered by the vision of showrunner Jon Favreau, a filmmaker with plenty of experience in understanding how and when to pair fabulous CGI with a solid script and juicy drama.
With executive producer credits that include The Mandalorian and The Lion King, Favreau is aware that with great CGI comes great responsibility. He has the know-how to straddle the line between optic spectacle and compelling storytelling. Such balance is, as we’ve seen when movies rely more and more on greenscreens, difficult to strike, but Prehistoric Planet does so with such grace and fluidity that it’s easy to not heed the hours of keyboard-and-mouse clicks it took to make it so “natural.”
Prehistoric Planet is a groundbreaking visual gift that offers us the ability to see into the past in unfathomable ways, getting us up-close-and-personal with the beasts that dominated Earth eons ago.
One only wishes that such a gift, packaged in a tight five episode series, were longer. But we’ve waited hundreds and millions of years to see a T-rex like this, so we can wait a little bit more for our next Jurassic encounter.
All five episodes of Prehistoric Planet are available to stream on Apple TV+.