At some point in most of our lives, we either personally engage in or are unwittingly subjected to a "deep" conversation about the interconnectivity of the universe. Usually, this conversation begins with someone ingesting a handful of mushrooms slathered in Cheez Whiz or involves the band Phish. It goes something like, "Dude, it's all connected, man. Like, all of it! Don't you see?"
What's neat about the BBC series "Secrets of Our Living Planet," and its episode titled "Waterworlds," is that it takes this rather basic psychedelic revelation and backs it up with mesmerizing wildlife footage. Your burnout friends from college—or you, as the case may have been—would've been infinitely more entertaining mid-trip had they used images of freakishly large river otters, innocuous apple snails and regular old dirt to demonstrate how every aspect of an ecosystem, large and small, is, in fact, connected.
"Waterworlds," which won the International Wildlife Film Festival's Best Ecosystem category, travels to the Brazilian Pantanal, the Sundarbans swamp of Bangladesh and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. In each locale, host Chris Packham starts big, by showing the kings of the food chain, and drills down into the soil or water to explain what is the most vital element of the area. In the Pantanal, we see anacondas, jaguars, otters bigger than your average seal, rod-breaking fish and even oversized water lilies. Packham explains how the river bottom's sediment is nutrient rich, and that's why the wildlife thrives.
But he also focuses on a nondescript mollusk that helps keep everything in balance. The diminutive apple snail makes for a healthy, crunchy snack for many river residents and, more importantly, feeds off the dead vegetation and recycles it into rich fertilizer. That's right—according to "Waterworlds," this vast tropical wetland ultimately relies on a small snail's poop.
Parkham goes on to draw similar connections between the survival of towering mangroves and lurking tigers in Bangladesh to a crab that burrows holes through the mud. In the Maldives, a sponge is the key to the coral reef. One of the cooler scenes shows how a sponge extracts the nutrients from salt water. Parkham holds up a tube of colored water that the sponge sucks in, filters and then spits out through another opening. It's the type of trippy visual that would blow your stoner friend's mind.
Much of this series, however, relies on Parkham to provide the heavy lifting of explaining how everything works, and that's not exactly a plus. He's the type of middling presence that makes one appreciate the gravitas of Sir David Attenborough, the cheesy charisma of Jack Hanna or even—and I can't believe I'm saying this—the goofy energy of the late Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin. Parkham is, for lack of a better description, boring. Not annoying or off-putting, just vanilla. In a way, he's similar to the animals he eventually focuses onmore apple snail than impressive jaguar lurking along the shoreline. That sounds meaner than I intended, but you get the point.
While "Waterworlds" has its moments—mostly in the wildlife footage, as most IWFF selections should—it ultimately left me asking more questions than necessary. Is that apple snail really the be-all, end-all? Is Parkham the best choice to host? On a more basic level, who is the show's target audience? Some of the foundational lessons make me think it's geared toward a younger crowd, like elementary school kids. But Parkham's presentation doesn't have the pizzazz and the production lacks the hooks necessary to hold their attention spans. (Exhibit A: My 7-year-old daughter did her homework rather than watch it; this doesn't happen often, regardless of what's on the television.) If the show is intended for a more general crowd, why spend so much time on the basics? Learning about plankton isn't exactly epic.
Perhaps the goal, for better or worse, is only to connect the dots between disparate elements of a shared ecosystem. In that case, it's perfect for your buddy with the extra tab looking to get his mind off Bob Weir's recent health troubles. Your friend will be totally stoked to simply follow the line from one pretty picture to the next.
"Waterworlds" screens at the Roxy Theater Sat., May 4, at 5 PM, as part of the International Wildlife Film Festival. Individual screenings are $7/$6 for seniors/$5 students/$3 children 12 and under.