In the new series Hostile Planet, you’re treated to a visually stunning story of fluffy goslings, zombified ants, and baby turtles fighting- and sometimes losing- a battle with nature. The six part docuseries hosted by Bear Grylls (The Island) tells you the story of nature through the lens of ongoing struggle for survival.
I interviewed executive producer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) for his perspective on the massive project. From eight-hundred hours of footage from all seven continents shot over three and a half years emerges a cohesive story of how animals’ compete and survive in extreme conditions. Even with the beautiful footage filling every frame, it would be easy for the show to accidentally turn into just-another-nature-documentary absent compelling framing. But the story of how life thrives with, and in spite of, a harsh native environment paints a thoughtful and memorable picture
“What was important to me was that the main narrative had to be the visual language,” Navarro told me. “I wanted to break away from the traditional format where the host was the most important piece and the visuals were illustrating a text, I had to break that. I’m a strong believer that the visual language is the language of our time. You’re there with the animals, they become your character so you can build a dramatic arc like we do in fiction, and you have an emotional connection with the animal because you’re there experiencing what it’s like to be them. And for that the film language has to build and you can’t do that with words.”
The immersive visuals hit you with a lasting impact. An adorable group of capybara wades out in the water past a jaguar. Grylls’ narration explains that this apex predator will eat anything and today it is particularly hungry. In the likeness of catch-your-breath-before-screaming horror movie moments, you get a brief sigh of relief when the capybara pack escapes… just in time for the jaguar to be attacked by an alligator. For a solid minute of thrashing you’re on edge unsure of who’s going to survive. The music swells with suspense before the jaguar emerges victorious with a gator sized snack.
We see this as a repeated theme. The show wasn’t for, as Navarro referred to it in our conversation, “the paparazzi moment” of one big ferocious attack. It was to show the process of survival for these animals, the story of what it took to get to the kill.
“In the episode ‘Oceans,’ in the first sequence, you have a turtle that was just born. She sees the world for the first time, you see what she sees, and then it becomes this bonkers sequence where she has to go through war to get through water.” Seagulls and gators mercilessly plow into the slowly migrating hatchlings for an easy snack. “A very small percentage makes it ot the water. And when our hero turtle makes it to the water, you’re completely invested.”
Scenes like this artfully weave the narrative of the series. For every 100,000 seeds that hits the floor in the rain forest, only one sprouts, and only a fraction of those ever hit the canopy. An orca chases after a school of herring and most of them escape. Fewer escape a larger whale. None escape a fishing boat. One in three of the barnacle goslings that base jumps four hundred feet will make it, and it’s not necessarily the death-defying jump that does it. You’re jolted when you hear the ‘thunk’ with which the little ball of fluff hits the ground.
“All that emotion you feel comes from understanding their story. The dramatic arc starts, you follow them for 400 feet, then BOOM, they hit that, and you wonder ‘how in the world does he survive, and then he survives. And then a raven is quicker than the baby duck. So he survives the drop but not the predator on the ground which is why they nest on top of the rocks. A second duck doesn’t survive the jump and the third one makes it. So out of three, one.”
In everything from a snow leopard risking life and limb tumbling down a mountain to keep its jaw wrapped around a potential meal to meerkats taunting a cobra, you feel like you’re there with the animals in ways you haven’t seen them before. Even in the quiet moments, it’s a memorable story. Two hummingbirds facing off mid-air to access food in a posture that can best be described as “you want this, bruh?” With the sound mixed to transform their wings into drum beats and rain drops into falling bombs, epic becomes the struggle of the humble hummingbird, and you’re so here for it.
I asked Navarro about his choice to work the direct and indirect impact of humans on the natural world into the series. He saw it as non-negotiable. “The other way to shoot it is that as though we’re living in a different planet. It was important to have a very clear connection and show that we live on the same planet and we’re all in this together. Mankind has pushed them to where there’s very little room for the animals, and the climate change has been devastating to their lives. The seasons have changed. It’s not only the temperature, everything has moved. They can no longer adapt, they can just survive. The resilience and determination is incredible. They go through very rough times and we’re part of the problem.”
Watching animals die of dehydration is harrowing in some scenes. It hits harder if you’ve accepted the reality that we’re contributing to climate change.
“We’re creating a sense of awareness. They’re a mirror of what it’s going to be for us, we have to be able to be smarter and more human about our decisions in this world. We have to make sure this planet survives for everybody, not just ourselves.”
I asked if there was a season two in the works and Navarro said it was a question for Nat Geo, but “there are a lot of good stories to tell.”
The series made me very grateful that I live in an era with temperature control, a steady food supply, and readily available potable water. Hostile Planet is now playing on National Geographic at 9pm on Mondays.