The career of a nature photographer must be a pretty thankless business -- you spend months taking pictures of pissed-off wildlife in the harshest conditions with no amenities, and earn less pay than Tom Cruise probably makes on a lunch break. Meanwhile, for such a noble profession, recognition is scant at best -- all of your hard work goes unacknowledged by the masses, with the fate of most nature documentaries confined to weekend specials on PBS, or those endless infotainment loops you see at the local zoo.
Which is why I end up feeling a little guilty when I watch a doc like 'Relentless Enemies,' because I can't help but wonder if all the effort that went into its making was really worth it. After a while, all of these nature specials filled with footage of frolicking animals and set to narration by some big Hollywood star start to feel a bit repetitive. It takes a rare breed of doc to rise above the dreaded "educational" label, and unless you're really telling a captivating story, all the fabulous shots of rampaging buffalo and toothy tigers quickly blur into abstraction.
National Geographic's 'Relentless Enemies' unfortunately falls into this trap. To be sure, this is an exceptionally-produced, fabulously-shot documentary focusing on the lions that populate Africa, and that feed -- often viciously -- on herds of buffalo. (Hence the "relentless enemies' of the title.) There are also moments of wonder and beauty, such as when we witness the birth of a buffalo fawn, or the sheer majestic of roar of the lion kings. Yet, unlike a 'March of the Penguins,' there isn't really a "story" here, and no characters to hold our attention over the course of the 90 minute film. The daily routines and mating rituals of the lions examined in 'Relentless Enemies' simply don't have the same built-in suspense factor found in a flick like 'Penguins', or any unique customs to set it apart from a million other nature docs. Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons offers some stately narration (and, seeing how he was the voice of Scar in Disney's 'The Lion King,' his presence here is even more fitting), though often he is left to simply describe what we are already seeing on the screen.
What 'Relentless Enemies' does do extraordinary well is present some fantastic, raw footage of animals in their natural habitat. There are moments here that are simply jaw-dropping. How the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Dereck and Beverly Joubert captured some of this material boggles the mind. I can only imagine them standing like lion bait, out in the open, pointing their camera with a huge zoom lens, hoping they don't get trampled or eaten. The natural landscapes and flawless cinematography are riveting in their own right, and the creatures themselves command the screen. Perhaps this is all just a bunch of animal porn, but then, so is about half the schedule of The Discovery Channel. I'm sure fans of nature documentaries won't be disappointed by 'Relentless Enemies.'
'Relentless Enemies' is National Geographic's first next-gen release, and I was quite curious to see how well their docs would translate to high-definition. I really wasn't sure what to expect, but this one easily exceeded my best hopes. To be sure, 'Relentless Enemies' looks great -- sometimes even fantastic.
Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions are being released simultaneously, and National Geographic is apparently taking a page from parent distributor Warner's next-gen playbook. Both discs feature identical video and audio options. Video-wise, this one features an often stunning 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 encode. The notes from National Geographic indicate that 'Relentless Enemies' was shot on film, not HD video, and as such, I now feel somewhat guilty that I gave such a high video rating recently to 'March of the Penguins,' a much more high-profile documentary, also shot on film. 'Enemies' looks noticeably superior. Granted, much of the doc is shot in bright daylight, but still -- it is less grainy, with better detail and superior color reproduction. There are close-ups here that are truly mind-boggling -- how did they capture this kind of material? Detail and depth is excellent, right down to the individual hairs on the backs of the big cats, or magnificent ripples on the crystal clear Africa waters. When a brilliant, cloud-filled sunset rages with lightning, it looks so perfect, it almost seems like a CGI effect. The rich oranges and lush greens are striking. Though dusk and night shots are far grainier and usually pretty flat, they still easily trump standard-definition. Pretty awesome stuff.
There is only a single soundtrack option provided on 'Relentless Enemies,' a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (at 640kpbs), but it's a good mix all around, with a heftier surround presence than I anticipated.
Like most nature documentaries, 'Relentless Enemies' is made up of only three elements: narration, score and on-location sound. But this mix sounds pretty organic and balanced, without the narration and dialogue overwhelming the natural elements. Jeremy Irons' elegant accent is very clear, and the generic if appropriate percussive score has a nice heft to it. Even the rears are pretty active. There is some nice bleed, not only of the score but also the real sounds. Thunder and other ambiance fills up the rears fairly well, and the occasional localized animal sound can be startlingly effective. A very promising first effort from National Geographic.
'Relentless Enemies' boasts a single supplement, dubbed "Cheetah Chase." I was expecting some sort of deleted scene, but it is actually a 26-minute featurette of surprising substance. It follows photographer Chris Johns, who is one of National Geographic's top contributors. Johns spends a great deal of time in Africa, and the doc offers good insight on the considerable challenges and physical obstacles he faces in photographing some of the world's most dangerous animals. Unfortunately, this peice is presented in 4:3 full screen 480i video only, so the quality is quite lacking compared to the main feature. But Johns is a fascinating guy, and this is a fitting tribute.
The only other "extras" are preview spots for three other upcoming National Geographic titles, none of which have been officially announced yet for HD DVD release: 'Eternal Enemies,' 'Eye of the Leopard' and 'In Search of the Jaguar.'
'Relentless Enemies' is typical of nature documentaries, meaning it's more educational than it is thrilling. But if you love big cats, or African landscapes, this is some pretty fantastic eye candy -- in fact, this film is filled with so many gorgeous images and magnificent creatures that it is easy to forget that there is no real story. Specs-wise, this HD DVD release is also a fine first effort from National Geographic, with video and audio that exceeded my best hopes. We even get an unexpected, in-depth featurette on one of the men behind such images. 'Relentless Enemies' is definitely worth checking out for fans of nature docs, animal porn or just great high-def.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.