Earth: The Biography Blu-ray Review

BBC’s Planet Earth marks not only one of the bestselling Blu-ray Disc titles release to-date by any studio, but also one of the most breathtaking documentary series ever to hit mainstream television. Later this year BBC will re-release it later this month as part of an uber-collection with its companion show, Earth: The Biography.

Interestingly enough, Warner Home Video recently released Earth: The Biography on Blu-ray Disc as a stand-alone, two-disc set, inspiring more than a few questions about which version to pick up. Quite frankly, if you already own Planet Earth, Earth: The Biography is easily worth buying on its own just to complete the set. But make no mistake, Earth: The Biography truly is a companion piece, not a clone or simple add-on. In fact, where Planet Earth focused on breathtaking cinematography and a few tidbits of information, Earth: The Biography is much more educational than entertaining, though its information can be downright fascinating at times.

Earth: The Biography spends two discs and 230 minutes chronicling our planet’s evolution. Hosted by Dr. Iain Stewart, the show provides a quick and dirty education about what makes Earth unique in the solar system and how it evolved from a molten rock to the water-covered planet we know today. In many respects, it feels like a full-fledged college series rolled into four hours of video, albeit much more entertaining and easier on the eyes than a 60-year-old geologist standing at the podium.

Because it’s focused on education, Earth: The Biography has no bonus features. But the emphasis on dialogue is nicely presented in 5.1 DTS-HD (no Master Audio) even if surrounds and .LFE are decidedly suppressed to mimic a television broadcast.

Earth: The Biography’s transfer is a “meager” 1080i/VC-1 job, a far cry from the 1080p most Blu-ray owners want to see on their HDTVs. Couple that with great-but-not-breathtaking camera work — the BBC’s Galapagos has by far the best non-animated picture quality we’ve yet seen on Blu-ray — and you’ve got what initially seems like a serious visual problem. It’s a good thing the information is compelling enough to overshadow these shortcomings.

Pound for pound, Earth: The Biography is the most educational and informational Blu-ray Disc you’ll watch this year. Disc One includes three features: Volcanoes, Atmosphere and Ice. Volcanoes takes you to some of the world’s most active volcanoes, including a rather amazing visit to Ethiopia to see a massive volcano spewing lava and fumes. During this trip inside a volcano, the documentary weaves in information about how toxic volcanic environments actually helped create life and, in fact, helped Earth break out of the Ice Age and create the atmosphere.

The second feature on Disc One is thus the logical follow-up: Atmosphere. At its most basic sense, this chapter discusses air, from the ozone and stratosphere to lightning and the wind. Throughout its 45 minutes, this chapter/episode discusses the requisite hurricanes and tornadoes, but the most compelling portions actually chronicle humans’ first exploration into the atmosphere. This in fact shows just how much Earth: The biography differs from Planet Earth. Whereas Planet Earth would shy away from any non-HD footage, this atmosphere-exploration segment includes some rather breathtaking (from a historical perspective) archival video footage of Joe Kittinger parachuting from 102,800 feet just to see what it was like. It also includes brief interviews with those involved, including Kittinger himself. Coupled with the modern-day video footage of the uppermost atmosphere, this awesome footage provides your best opportunity to see the troposphere and space unless you plan to pony up for a trip on Virgin Galactic.

From the cold reaches of space, Disc One then delves into the coldest areas of our planet in its Ice episode. This chapter delves into the history and importance of glaciers, including how they formed, what they can tell us about Earth’s past, and how they can provide insight into what our future may hold environmentally. In doing the latter, this chapter also hints at what is ultimately the two-disc set’s undoing as a “documentary”: a not-so-casual commentary about humans’ impact on the environment.

Disc Two includes two documentaries, Oceans and Rare Planet, begging the question of why there couldn’t have been some BD-Live functionality included on the disc to direct people to more informational outlets or trivia online. The Oceans episode spends the bulk of its time discussing water’s history in shaping our planet, including some fascinating information about the tides and the oceans’ impact on our weather via oceanic currents. In an unexpected twist, at least for an “Oceans” chapter, this episode also includes some rather compelling information about Earth’s formation through collisions with ice-bearing comets — which accounted for half of our oceans’ total water content.

Partially because of these celestial segments, Oceans is actually the most interesting of the five features included in Earth: The Biography. But the fascinating info doesn’t stop there: Oceans also discusses the incredible history of the Mediterranean Sea and the impact of salt and saltwater, things that you probably wouldn’t hear even in a college class unless you were taking an upper-level course. Fortunately, as mentioned above, the episode (and indeed the entire two-disc set) presents the information in a way that you never feel like you’re learning, even when you are. Goat-sized elephants? It’s true, and you’ll only see the “how” and “why” of them if you watch this feature.

The final segment, Rare Planet, acts primarily as a recap of the other four episodes, discussing everything that Dr. Stewart outlined earlier and how those elements have led to Earth being the only known planet to support life in our solar system, and perhaps in the galaxy and universe. Rare Planet also delves into the formation (and future) of the moon, and how celestial collisions through time resulted in a unique pool of natural resources that were required to support life. However, by pointing out just how lucky we are to have Earth, the episode takes a bit more of a thesis than we were expecting.

Although all well produced and informational, the five documentaries that comprise Earth: The Biography take a decidedly political tone at times, albeit generally subtle. Humans have undeniably had an impact on the atmosphere, ice sheets and environment, but the “mini commentaries” all build up to the Rare Planet feature, which makes the presentation feel almost like “An Inconvenient Truth – Lite.” I personally believe the message and call to action of An Inconvenient Truth, but for a BBC Video production that largely feels like a documentary, the subtle comments really detract from the informational nature of this two-disc Blu-ray collection.

If you can look past this thesis, or at least take it in stride and know that it’s coming, Earth: The Biography is the perfect companion piece to Planet Earth. As a Blu-ray Disc, Earth: The Biography leaves much to be desired in the multimedia department. But as an educational tool and compelling collection of Earth history, it’s definitely a recommended series.

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