14 Best Science & Nature Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
Orlando von Einsiedel's epic documentary is at once a stunning natural film, an intimate human drama, and an intense political thriller slash investigative report. The titular Virunga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site in Eastern Congo, serves as the magnifying glass through which we witness the natural, human, and political crisis of this embattled and volatile region. There are poachers killing endangered gorillas, the bloody business of Big Oil companies, government forces fighting a myriad of militias, and, lastly, the three individuals struggling to protect Virunga and its mountain gorillas from death and destruction. The result is a snap-crackle-pop-type situation, like sitting on a powder keg. The film captures all this superbly with great editing, compelling real-life material, and gripping action. Virunga's intensity can rival a well-made fictional thriller any day of the week.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: André Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Mélanie Gouby, Orlando von Einsiedel, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rating: Not Rated

Orcas killing people? Saving whales? There was indeed a time when these issues were frontpage news and that might be the reason why this sounds like a 90s cliché to you. You might agree that this issue should be staunchly dealt with once you've watched Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary. Orcas still being held captive by marine parks like SeaWorld to perform stunts and to parade around swimming pools to entertain ticket-buying families. Blackfish is the story of one of them in particular: a bull Orca named Tilikum, who has killed several people as a result of their immoral imprisonment. Similar incidents tend to be covered up by the parks' operators and management. They are, however, attributable to the fact that the animals are quiet simply driven mad by the unnatural conditions they are subjected to. They are not born as killers, they are turned into them. First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, elaborating on their remarkable intelligence and social behaviors. For those unaware of this, this passionate documentary makes for a chilling watch.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anderson Cooper, Carol Ray, Dean Gomersall, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, James Earl Jones, John Hargrove, John Jett, John Sillick, Mark Simmons, Mercedes Martinez, Samantha Berg, Tamarie Tollison, Tilikum, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rating: PG-13

The 400 billion (!) dollar industry of medical devices is director Kirby Dick’s latest fascination (Oscar winner Twist of Faith, Oscar nominated The Invisible War). This is one of those documentaries that will raise your awareness about a topic from 0 to I-should-do-something, as the number of victims and the negative impacts these devices are having are astounding. Of course, just like with any other careless American industries, greed, money, and lobbying are the culprits. This is an important watch that will probably come in very handy when you or a close one needs a medical device.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Angie Firmalino, Kirby Dick

Director: Kirby Dick

Rating: Not Rated, TV-14

This new documentary is about the exact scale to which social media is harming us, as testified to by people from the industry: ex-executives at Google, Instagram, Facebook, and even the ex-President of Pinterest. All have left their companies for (incredibly valid) ethical concerns that they share here.

It's a blend of interview footage and a fiction film that follows a family who feels more distant because of social media. This allows to see the implications of what the interviewees are saying in real life but quite frankly it also serves as a welcome break from the intensity of their words. How intense? One of them predicts civil war within 20 years.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Catalina Garayoa, Chase Penny, Chris Grundy, Gavin White, Jaron Lanier, Jason Potter, Kara Hayward, Laura Obiols, Lynn Fox, Renée DiResta, Roger McNamee, Skyler Gisondo, Sophia Hammons, Tristan Harris, Vincent Kartheiser

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Rating: PG-13

How to Change the World is an insightful and candid documentary about the formation of Greenpeace in 1971 by a small group of environmentalists and activists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Beginning with their attempt to disrupt U.S. nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska, the film follows their subsequent efforts to thwart commercial whaling in the Pacific, their anti-sealing campaign in Newfoundland, and their ongoing efforts to defend the natural world against what they perceive as excessive human intervention and abuse. How to Change the World is as much a poignant tale of inspired activism as it is an interesting study of the organization’s early tribulations: idealism vs. anarchy, social movement vs. organizational structure (or lack thereof) and leadership vs. disunity. The voice of co-founder Robert Hunter (de facto leader of Greenpeace from inception) is heard posthumously throughout via narrator Barry Pepper, and it adds an impassioned air of gravitas to the film, detailing the many complexities Greenpeace experienced over the course of its early years of growth and development. A compelling and educational viewing experience.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Bill Darnell, Bobbi Hunter, David Garrick, Emily Hunter, Jerry Rothwell, Paul Watson, Rex Weyler

Director: Jerry Rothwell

Rating: Not Rated

, 2017

With its detailed portraits of seven of Istanbul’s most adored felines, Kedi affirms what anyone who’s spent some time with a cat will know: they really do all have fully-fledged, complex personalities of their own. More than just a celebration of some supremely cute kitties, though, this documentary about the city’s teeming street cat population also presents a moving example of a way of living that embraces — rather than tramples over — our animal neighbors.

Immersive cinematography from the cats’ eye levels is weaved with interviews with the people who care for them, whether voluntarily or because the cats simply demand it. That independence emerges as a much-admired characteristic in the documentary; as one interviewee puts it, “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. They’re not ungrateful, they just know better.” It’s impossible not to read a wistful note in the interviewees’ odes — indeed, for many of the people featured here, cats are a point of spiritual and personal reconnection, a reminder of what life is really about underneath all the mind-numbing dross we’ve made up. The magic of Kedi is that it not only perceptively recognizes the healing effect that cats have on humans, but recreates it so that these 70-something minutes feel like therapy.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bülent Üstün

Director: Ceyda Torun

Rating: NR

From countries like Finland to North Korea, this amazing documentary explores the most fascinating active volcanoes on our planet. But as it unfolds you realize that Into the Inferno is a movie as much about volcanoes as it is about the people obsessed with them. And who can be called obsessive more than the film’s own director, Werner Herzog, who, with such an explosive career had to eventually make a film about volcanos (bad pun intended). Beautiful scenery, interesting interviews, and Werner’s majestic delivery all make Into the Inferno both an interesting and satisfying documentary.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Clive Oppenheimer, Kampiro Kayrento, Katia Krafft, Mael Moses, Maurice Krafft, Werner Herzog

Director: Werner Herzog

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

Six years after blowing box-office records out of the water with Titanic, director James Cameron once again plunged into the deep for Ghosts of the Abyss. This documentary charts several 12500-foot-deep trips that Cameron, actor Bill Paxton (who played a treasure-hunter in the 1997 movie), and others took in submersibles down to the ship’s wreckage on the pitch-black bed of the Atlantic. The images they captured there are eerie and awe-inspiring: the camera floats through the skeleton of the once-grand ship, now colonised by sea life but still bearing haunting reminders of the people who perished with it. Digital superimpositions of the original layout help to bring the rusted interiors back to life, while ghostly, translucent images of actors are overlaid to recreate the panic and tragedy of the Titanic’s last night.

Granted, it isn’t the romantic epic the 1997 movie was, but Ghosts of the Abyss is an absorbing opportunity for Titanic fans to geek out and a window into the plucky logistics of these undersea trips (which have themselves become an object of great interest, given more recent, ill-fated journeys). Stripping back the Hollywood glamor and diving more deeply into the tragic reality of the Titanic, this is a companion piece that works just as compellingly on its own.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bill Paxton, Charles Pellegrino, Don Lynch, Federico Zambrano, James Cameron, John Broadwater, Ken Marschall, Lewis Abernathy, Lori Johnston, Mike Cameron, Tava Smiley

Director: James Cameron

Rating: G, PG

If you’re ever in the mood to watch a documentary about the wild, you can look no further than Predators. The thrilling docuseries is divided into 40-minute episodes, each one dedicated to a specific animal and how it thrives in an unforgiving environment. We get crisp close-ups of the creatures hunting and feasting on their prey, with Tom Hardy poetically narrating the events and music thrillingly playing in the background. Though rare, there are times when the footage and sound resemble the license-free stock you can easily get online, but for the most part, the visuals are impressive. Teeth tearing into meat, eyes widening in fear, and sprinting, so many limbs sprinting out into the open field as the beasts chase their next meal. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Tom Hardy

An extraordinary documentary full of drama, comedy and heartbreak. It follows two penguins, a couple, for a year as they migrate, give birth and face hardships and tragedy. It captures never seen before moments that stand as a perfect illustration of survival in particular and life in general. All in a very well crafted documentary that you will find both instructive and deeply moving. Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Genre: Documentary, Family

Actor: Charles Berling, Fiorello, Jules Sitruk, Morgan Freeman, Romane Bohringer

Director: Luc Jacquet

Rating: G

King of Clones tells the story of Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist once praised as a national hero for his pioneering work in cloning. However, Hwang's reputation was shattered in 2006 when it was revealed that he had falsified data in his research. The documentary follows Hwang's rise and fall, and it provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of scientific research and the ethical challenges that it raises. Through simplified explanations and testimonies from beneficiaries and journalists that exposed his fraudulent activities, the film remains accessible without losing its narrative. It also opens the conversation on the progress of cloning technology and the implications of not having ethics that can be agreed upon among the scientific community and the general public. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: George W. Bush, Hwang Woo-suk, Jung Ho-seok, Kim Dae-jung, Kim Jong-il, Kim Tae-hyung, Park Ji-sung, Roh Moo-hyun, Son Heung-min

Director: Aditya Thayi

Rating: PG-13

As the value of ivory appreciated by the Chinese middle-class, the demand for it has skyrocketed. This brought elephants to a dire outlook: extinction in as early as the next 15 years. “Traders in ivory actually want extension in elephants, the less elephants there are the more the price rises” as one of the commentators in the film says. To bring awareness to this threat, filmmakers went undercover for 16 months and followed the ivory from where it was stolen to where it hits the shelves of Hong Kong. The result is a genuine thriller, far more gripping than you’d expect from a documentary. It portrays the brave and hopeful men and women trying to combat these atrocities, the battle they may be losing, and all the obstacles they face. An extremely important watch.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andrea Crosta, Ian Stevenson, Kief Davidson, Prince William, Richard Ladkani

Director: Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

A film by legendary director Werner Herzog where he travels to Antarctica, or rather you travel with him to study the people, the places, and the wild life of the South Pole. And when I say people I mean scientists and researchers but also truck drivers, plummers, and basically everyone with an interesting dream. This is a film for all curious minds, whether suit-trapped in a big city or out there in contact with nature every day. It’s a combination so deep of unbelievable scenery and tangible sequences, that it almost becomes intangible, almost a religious experience.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Doug MacAyeal, Scott Rowland, Stefan Pashov, Werner Herzog

Director: Werner Herzog

Rating: G

Incredible footage combined with a great soundtrack will keep you frozen in your seat until global warming melts you off (so to speak). Chasing Ice is about a National Geographic photographer who tries to capture a complete overview of what climate change is doing to our planet. Consequently this movie took years to make and countless technical issues had to be dealt with in order to record the time-lapse videos. The result is mesmerizing, and captures something that has never been caught on camera before. This movie is evidence of what our planet is going through that everyone can relate to. Be prepared to be charmed and saddened at the same time.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dennis Dimick, James Balog, Jeff Orlowski, Kitty Boone, Louie Psihoyos, Svavar Jónatansson, Sylvia Earle

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Rating: PG-13