In a bit of engineering fit for “Jurassic Park,” “Prehistoric Planet” weds BBC nature documentaries– complete with narrator extraordinaire David Attenborough – with the dinosaur era and conceives a fascinating hybrid, one that doesn’t require waiting around to capture footage but creates it using state-of-the-art imaging technology. The result is a five-part Apple TV+ series packed with plenty of dino might.
Set 66 million years ago, as Attenborough explains, the production leverages everything we’ve learned about dinosaurs to craft narratives that follow the template of traditional nature fare. So viewers get to see these extinct creatures as behaving like animals, not monsters, as mothers protect their young from predators, males battle for territorial and mating rights and other circle-of-life moments, only here created in a computer, not filmed in the wild.
Counting “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau among its producers and boasting a score courtesy of composer Hans Zimmer, the production possesses the look and feel of a theatrical blockbuster, with an educational component woven throughout it. (Each episode directs the audience to a web site for more information about that night’s tales.)
For those with a taste for the Jurassic (and probably not coincidentally, premiering weeks before another movie sequel), the behaviors on display offer glimpses of dinosaur actions that aren’t normally displayed. That list includes a Tyrannosaurus rex swimming with its young frantically paddling to keep up, or the competition among male Barbaridactylus pterosaurs to win a mate.
The producers cleverly employ tropes associated with the sort of documentaries that fill channels like BBC America and National Geographic, while the level of digital visualization has clearly graduated by a next-generation magnitude over something like “Walking With Dinosaurs,” an earlier version of the same idea.
If nothing else, there’s merit in presenting dinosaurs as what they were – not just giant beasts, but complex precursors to the animals roaming the natural world today – instead of the entertainment-driven emphasis on showing them chasing jeeps and eating lawyers.
By portraying them as they lived in their own time, “Prehistoric Planet” serves as a welcome reminder that the pop-culture vision of dinosaurs that has become magnified in the rear-view mirror goes beyond just the stuff of science fiction.
“Prehistoric Planet” premieres May 23 and play over consecutive nights on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Apple.)