Mosasaur, pterosaur, hadrosaur, tethyshadros, edmontosaurus, dromaeosaurid, antarctopelta, pachyrhinosaurus, nanuqsaurus. And, of course, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
These are not mindless monsters we see on Apple TV’s rivetingly surreal follow-up to Pre-Historic Planet Season 1. They existed on Earth 66 million years ago, and as the makers of this docuseries shows, they had mating rituals, maternal instincts and foraging methods besides being instinctive predators. Season 2 (which dropped this week), like Season 1, recreates the dinosaur with such lifelikeness and minute details that it is easy to forget that what we you’re watching is CGI-powered imagery juxtaposed with real natural locations.
The series is the pinnacle of what the nature documentary can be. Nothing is left to our imagination, it is a work of expansive artistic rigour and patience. The makers — Jon Favreau, the BBC’s Natural History Unit, the photorealistic visual effects team of MPC (The Lion King, The Jungle Book), and Jellyfish Pictures — have said in interviews that their primary material were reams of fossil record analysis up-to-date till the time they started filming, the experience of wildlife film-makers who have observed animals in the field, a CGI tools cornucopia, and David Attenborough. The second season presents little-known and surprising facts of dinosaur life — and that includes the most pristine setting for a male pterosaur’s creative attempts to woo a female of the specie — against the backdrop of coasts, deserts, freshwater, skies, ice caverns and thick forests mimicking Cretaceous times. Or how a mother keeps her litter warm on volcanic sands.
The camera behaves like it belongs to a real documentarian filming real terrains. Most sequences look like the longest possible tele-photo lens has captured real action without being close to the subjects — leading to an authentic sense of physical distance from a terrifying, potentially dangerous subject. The here-and-now feeling of chasing dinosaurs in real time is other CGI feat. Having Attenborough punctuate sequences set in the natural world, describing and emphasising that what we see is backed by hard science is a badge of double veracity for the makers, assuring us that the second season, like the first, uses the most recent research available on dinosaurs. It is also a bit perplexing to have the original natural documentary voice and figure from BBC semi-narrate an Apple TV documentary that essentially comes from no actual documentary footage, but it’s fact that the experience of the spectacle manages to overwhelm. According to science reporting done at the Smithsonian Magazine, scientists find new traits of dinosaurs on a “near-weekly basis”. Towards the end of each episode of Season 2, other experts describe in significant detail why they present a particular specie in a particular way.
Pre-Historic Planet 2 is such riveting spectacle that even though I wondered through all the magnificent, breathless action if it was better off being fiction, the curiosity and even reverence of the minds and hands and art behind it for the natural world, and the willingness to present it in the most technically sophisticated way possible, makes it an unusually enjoyable treat.