If you’re looking for something entertaining and beautiful that will also inform you, there’s an incredible variety of science- and nature-focused documentaries and TV shows on Netflix right now.
The downside to having all of those options is that there’s a lot to choose from. To make it easier, Business Insider reporters and editors have picked some of our favourites from Netflix’ selection.
Films come and go from the platform every month, but as of the date of publication, everything on our list should be available. We’ll update the recommendations periodically to reflect currently stream-able documentaries.
Here are our favourites, in no particular order:
What it’s about: In 2014, filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel contacted Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Moscow anti-doping center, for advice about how to get away with using performance-enhancing drugs. In 2015, Rodchenkov was implicated in state-sponsored doping efforts by the World Anti-Doping Agency. So he decided to flee Russia, travel to the US, and to reveal everything he knew about the widespread Russian doping program.
Why you should see it: The film mixes crime, sport, international intrigue, and the science of manipulating human performance. It’s both thrilling and disturbing – and is especially relevant given the recent ban on Russian athletes competing for their country in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Because of Rodchenkov’s revelations, the world will never look at sports – the Olympics especially – the same way again. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: In this four-part docu-series, journalist and food expert Michael Pollan explores the evolutionary history of food and its preparation through the lens of the four essential elements: fire, water, air, and earth.
Why you should see it: Americans as a whole are cooking less and relying more on unhealthy, processed, and prepared foods. Pollan aims to bring viewers back to the kitchen by forging a meaningful connection to food and the joys of cooking. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: This film highlights abuses in the sea park industry through the tale of Tilikum, an orca in captivity at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum has killed or been involved in the deaths of three people while living in the park.
Why you should see it: This documentary opens your eyes to the troubles of keeping wild animals in captivity through shocking footage and emotional interviews. It highlights the potential issues of animal cruelty and abuse involved with using highly intelligent animals as entertainment. Sea parks have historically made billions of dollars by keeping animals captive, often at the expense of the health and well-being of animals. This documentary played a huge role in convincing SeaWorld to stop their theatrical “Shamu” killer whale shows. [Click to watch]
“Chasing Coral” (2017)
What it’s about:Step into the alien world that teems with life beneath the sea. This film, by the team behind the film “Chasing Ice,” is an attempt to document the transformation and loss of coral reefs around the globe. The filmmakers face rough oceans as they dive underwater to plant cameras and document the changes to reefs. What they reveal is both fascinating and tragic.
Why you should see it:Coral reefs cover less than 2% of the sea floor, but a quarter of marine life depends on them to exist. Without these fascinating and complicated creatures, much of the ocean as we know it wouldn’t exist. The filmmakers reveal the otherworldly beauty of these underwater creatures, and capture just how fragile their existence is at this point. [Click to watch]
“Planet Earth” (2006)
What it’s about: David Attenborough narrates this dazzling high-definition documentary series, as well as its sequel (see below). Each episode offers incredible footage of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders – oceans, deserts, ice caps, and more.
Why you should see it:“Planet Earth is why HDTV was invented. It has some of the most amazing visuals ever. And when you learn the lengths the crew went to for the footage, such as camping out for days on end in camouflage, you’ll have a great appreciation for the people behind the show. They truly want to give you a one of a kind experience,” said Sam Rega, the former producer and director for Business Insider Films.
“You’ve never seen nature like this. I’d argue that Planet Earth, with its high definition footage that took five years to shoot, changed the way nature documentaries were made – all for the better.”
It’s a journey around the globe to the incredibly varied environments that make up our world. Every episode shows you things you’ve never seen: caves with their eyeless creatures, jungles brimming with life, and to the mountains which tower over us. [Click to watch]
“Planet Earth II” (2017)
What it’s about: There’s one way to top Planet Earth, and that’s to take everything that was great about the original show and combine those techniques with new technology like 4K cameras and drone footage to shoot even more stunning scenes.
Why you should see it:If you have any appreciation for nature documentaries, the drama of the natural world, stunning vistas, or David Attenborough’s narration, this is a can’t miss. Once you see a young iguana in the Galapagos start the race for his life to escape a swarm of snakes in the first episode, you’ll be hooked. [Click to watch]
“The Blue Planet” (2001)
What it’s about: This critically-acclaimed series plunges into the mysterious depths of the world’s oceans by travelling to a variety of coasts and poles to examine creatures big and small. Like both Planet Earth series, it’s narrated by David Attenborough, one of the most famous voices in documentary filmmaking. A sequel Blue Planet series is currently airing on BBC America, and will hopefully become available on Netflix someday soon.
Why you should see it: Our planet is covered by water, yet the mysteries and alien creatures in the oceans seem like they’re from another world. The next-best thing to exploring that yourself is watching footage of those incredible environments with David Attenborough’s narration. You’ll see fragile and colourful coral reefs, the dark abyss of the deep ocean, and the lives of the powerful creatures of the open sea. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: This stunning, 10-episode British series was made over four years and filmed on every continent and in every type of habitat in the world. It chronicles some of the most unusual and bizarre behaviours that plants and animals adopt to survive.
Why you should see it: In many ways, every creature on this planet is incredibly unique, adapting to fit whatever niche allows it survive. A clownfish, for example, makes its home inside the tentacles of a sea anemone that most other creatures can’t be near without being stung. Yet in other ways, many animals have developed similar behaviours to other creatures, like ways of communicating or sharing tools. Seeing these behaviours shows just how adaptable life really is. [Click to watch]
“Into the Abyss” (2011)
What it’s about: A Werner Herzog masterpiece, this documentary tells the story of death row inmate Michael Perry, who was convicted of a triple murder in 2001.
Why you should see it: This film delves into the fraught realm of capitol punishment through interviews with convicted killers and their families, as well as members of the Texas criminal justice system. It explores the psychology of why people – and states that enforce the death penalty – kill. [Click to watch]
“The Ivory Game” (2016)
What it’s about: Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson document the struggle to protect elephants. They follow armed law enforcement officers who fight poaching in Africa and try to infiltrate the black market for ivory in China.
Why you should see it: Persistently sad, thrilling, and beautifully shot, this film shines a light on one of the biggest criminal enterprises on the planet. It’s tragic to watch these intelligent, social, majestic animals get slaughtered for their teeth, and this film shows the scope of the problem. It also offers a glimpse of what it would take to prevent these animals from being hunted to extinction. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: Documentary filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn reveal the eye-opening environmental impacts that meat production has had on our planet – including global warming, habitat loss, pollution, and more.
Why you should see it: The US is one of the biggest consumers and producers of meat, yet most people rarely understand how their food choices tie in to larger problems like climate change, drought, habitat loss, and pollution. As meat consumption continues to rise, so too will its negative effects on the environment. [Click to watch]
“National Parks Adventure” (2016)
What it’s about: There’s something truly special about the idea that the greatest natural wonders and most beautiful places on the planet should be open to everyone and are too valuable for individuals to own or develop. In this film, produced for the 100th anniversary of that park system, Greg MacGillivray takes viewers to more than 30 of those parks, following climbers Conrad Anker, Max Lowe, and Rachel Pohl.
Why you should see it: There’s one thing that this film does very well and that’s show off just how beautiful these places are. Watch it on the biggest screen you can. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: In the midst of a civil war and fight over the Congo’s natural resources, a team of embattled and devoted park rangers risk their lives to protect eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park from poachers and armed militia.
Why you should see it: This film has a dynamic and impressive mix of investigative journalism and nature. It brings to light the troubles of protecting one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, which is home to the few remaining mountain gorillas in Africa’s forgotten national park. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: Explained isn’t purely a science show. Some topics are very scientific – there are episodes about gene editing, dieting, and marijuana. But others touch on more cultural phenomena like cricket and K-Pop. Whether the topic is scientific or not, the Vox producers have created a series full of excellent short documentaries, each approximately 15 minutes long.
Why you should see it: No matter which subject an episode tackles, you’ll come away 15 minutes later feeling much better informed. It’s a well produced, interesting, and fun show with fantastic expert interviews. [Click to watch]
“Valley Uprising” (2014)
What it’s about: When it comes to adventure that’s connected to nature, there’s little that compares to the sport of rock climbing. “Valley Uprising” is a historical – and fun – look at the evolution of the sport. The film focuses on the climbers that popularised Yosemite Valley, following a journey from the “Golden Age” climbers of the 1950s and 60s through the “Stonemasters” era in the 1970s all the way up to the climbers of the present, like Alex Honnold, who recently became the first to climb all the way up El Capitan without ropes.
Why you should see it: The story of climbing and the people who helped make the sport what it is today is an amazing and entertaining one. There’s a lot of nostalgia and human drama in the film – enough that some climbers have criticised the focus on personality and on some characters to the exclusion of less exciting but equally historically important ones – but none of that changes the fact that this is a fascinating tale. Plus, it’s beautiful. [Click to watch]
“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007)
What it’s about: Few places are as strange and alien as Antarctica, and iconoclastic director Werner Herzog provides quite the perspective on life at the bottom of the world. This film is a mix of travelogue, anthropological inquiry, and exploration of the unique environments and creatures of the southernmost continent.
Why you should see it: “Encounters at the End of the World” is both beautiful and fascinating. There are few filmmakers better equipped to ask why and how humans live in such an inhospitable environment. And while you learn about the serious environmental issues that are being confronted in Antarctica, it’s also possible to sit back and just be stunned by the scenery. [Click to watch]
“Making a Murderer” (2015)
What it’s about: This true crime series tells the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Why you should see it: If you’ve avoided this captivating series so far because you weren’t sure it would live up the hype, give it a shot. This twisting tale looks into how forensic science can go wrong or be wrongfully used – and asks serious questions about how our justice system treats the vulnerable, whether or not they are guilty. [Click to watch]
“Food, Inc.” (2008)
What it’s about: Director Robert Kenner offers a deep look into how the food industry has changed drastically since the 1950s, driven mostly by multinational corporations and fast food companies. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and for good reason.
Why you should see it: “Everyone eats food, but very few of us stop to consider where all of it comes from. And when you look as deeply and as widely as author Eric Schlosser did with ‘Fast Food Nation,’ which director Robert Kenner based his documentary on, the picture is shocking and often disturbing.
“There are some political leanings apparent in Food, Inc., and a few facts that seem suspect. But the larger picture – a desperate need for a better, healthier, more humane food system – remains firmly intact. If you eat food in the United States, you must watch this movie. It’s as moving as it is informative.” -Dave Mosher, science and tech correspondent. [Click to watch]
“Into the Inferno” (2016)
What it’s about: Director Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer scour the globe, examining the power of active volcanoes.
Why you should see it: This film delves not just into volcanoes themselves, but into the spiritual beliefs and practices that have developed around them. It’s a look at how humanity interacts with dangerous natural phenomena – plus, there’s some stunning imagery. [Click to watch]
What it’s about: You guessed it – it’s about the four-legged survivors that surround humanity and feed off our trash around the globe.
Why you should see it: A horror flick in documentary form, “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock’s Discovery Channel documentary is based on the Robert Sullivan book “Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.” It’s a bit sensationalised, sure, but it’s captivating. Business Insider’s Jason Guerrasio writes that it’s “one of Spurlock’s best films in years” and that “Spurlock expands the deep dive into the rats that inhabit New York City and shows how the rodents are dealt with – and in some cases worshiped – around the world.” [Click to watch]
“The Farthest: Voyager in Space” (2017)
What it’s about: In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecraft to explore our solar system – and beyond. The trip gave us unprecedented looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first object to leave our heliosphere and began its journey into interstellar space. The epic journey of these two probes continues, and they’re still sending back data to tell us what it’s like out there.
Why you should see it: If you’re intrigued or inspired by the audacity of launching the first mission into interstellar space, you need to watch this. “The Farthest” documents the challenges and people involved in the remarkable effort to get as far away from Earth as possible – and to keep going. [Click to watch]
Did we miss any of your favourites? Let us know by emailing [email protected].
This is an updated version of a post originally by Julia Calderone.
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