In honor of Earth Day, April 20, National Geographic Wild has concocted a little natural history tour, scored by Bleeding Fingers in collaboration with Ex Ambassadors. Symphony for Our World is a one-hour montage of natural history footage from National Geographic and some big, swelling, epic score-action. It’s not a groundbreaking masterpiece. But it’s oddly seductive.
The audiovisual symphony is divided into four movements: “Sea,” “Shore,” “Land” and “Sky.” There’s not a scrap of narration, not a lick of context—which is fine. But the editors seem to have chosen to hop around the planet at light speed, so it’s often hard to tell what actual part of the planet you’re looking at unless you happen to have been there—which is less fine and sometimes even annoying. Part of the “celebration of our world” thing is knowing what’s what within it. Sometimes the creatures onscreen tell you. A lion’s taking down a zebra? African savannah. A standoff between a roadrunner and a diamondback rattler against a red rock background? Probably Arizona. If you know where marine iguanas congregate you can identify the Galapagos, and if you know where a certain kind of lava is flowing into the ocean, wave hello to Hawai’i. Some land formations are so iconic (Yo, Ayers rock!) there’s no mistaking them. But the scenes shift from season to season, latitude to latitude, so fast your head spins. The individual fames, scenelets, tableaux—hey, it’s National Geographic, they’re freaking gorgeous. (A fair few in the “Sea” section do look like someone raided Sir David Attenborough’s cutting room.) It would have been interesting to allow a little visual storytelling to unfold, for example by circumnavigating the world or sticking with one zone or season at a time, or coming back to the same creatures in different parts of their life cycles. (The film does this here and there, but it’s so sporadic it almost feels accidental.)
In a purely musical symphony, the movements are traditionally distinct. One ends, one begins. The planet isn’t like that, really: It’s entangled, so dividing it into these “movements” is funky, especially since “sea” and “shore” are completely interlocked, as are sea and sky (look, birds! And also, weather!) and sky and land (look, the rest of the birds! Also, weather). For me, and this is a huge Mileage May Vary item because emotional responses to music are super personal, the whole concept of symphonic movement is a little sketchy throughout, because there’s lack of distinctness in both the footage and the score, as though in spite of themselves the team of creatives who assembled it were pulled into the plain fact that you cannot separate anything from anything on this planet. A one-movement symphony might have felt more natural. I found myself wondering how the footage would change if I muted the program and put on another piece of music. Actually, that would be a really interesting experiment. Maybe I still will. The music itself? It’s not boring. It didn’t blow my mind. It faintly bothered me that they went to the bother of creating divisions that didn’t really seem to exist.
To call this planet a symphony does not take a laudanum-addled ecstatic poet. It is one. It’s the ultimate orchestra, and it never stops playing. This ode to its diversity and beauty is visually both lovely and distracting, and I think I have to say the same about the music. There’s some amazing photography. There are some beautiful sounds. I’d stick my kids in front of this show in a heartbeat just because it’s always amazing to watch orcas breaching in the San Juans or poison dart frogs leaping through the bromeliads or a giant octopus hunting. It holds your attention. It’s a good concept. But it could have been much more.
Symphony for Our World is airs Sunday, April 22 at 7 p.m. on Nat Geo WILD.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.