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Blu-ray Review: BBC High Definition Natural History Collection Featuring Planet Earth Special Edition

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Technology has allowed for a massive number of changes to the world of entertainment.  From HDTV to 3DTV to gaming devices of all shapes and sizes, the way in which we consume entertainment is radically different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.  Of course, the changes haven’t just come on the consumption end, they’ve come on the production side of things of things, too, and one of the places that is most evident is with the nature documentary.  Technology has allowed far more to be captured on film (or video) in the past 10 years than was previously possible.  And now, four fantastic BBC Natural History Unit documentaries have been collected in a single box set for our viewing pleasure.

Combined in said single box (though with separate cases), are 10 Blu-ray discs which feature Planet Earth:  Special Edition, Wild China, Galapagos, and Ganges.  This is 19 hours (plus bonus material) of high definition, gorgeous views of our planet and an inside look at how it all works.  From frozen tundras to hidden caves to elements that have radically shaped the lives of countries (and the world) to a look at evolution, these four documentaries represent years upon years of work and provide the viewer a far greater understanding of our planet and its history.

The star of the set is Planet Earth, which originally aired on the BBC in March of 2006 and in the States in June of 2007 (this is the British version, with Richard Attenborough providing the narration, not Sigourney Weaver).  Over the course of 11 episodes, each running approximately 50 minutes, we get to go from a macro view to episodes which focus on smaller aspects – caves, deserts, shallow seas, and seasonal forests just to name a few.

Everyone will find something different that particularly spurs their imagination and sense of wonder over the course of Planet Earth‘s 11 episodes, but for this reviewer, the stand out is the episode “Caves,” which, as one would surmise, is an in-depth discussion of cave formation, cave life, and the importance of them.  There is even a discussion of a guano mound and the life which thrives therein in a cave in Borneo. The episode also features incredible footage of people BASE jumping into a cave in Mexico, an all-around impressive feat, especially considering the size of the cave.

This particular episode actually looks the least good on Blu-ray of everything in the set, most likely due to the low light conditions under which it was filmed.  However, it is not a terribly great shortcoming in any way, there is, simply, more visual noise on screen in the dark scenes than in the well lit ones.

What makes this series of videos truly outstanding isn’t simply the way in which everything is filmed and the close-up looks at animals and their lives which it offers, but its ability combine the visuals and up-close looks with consistently fascinating narration and beautiful scores.  It is, simply put,  a perfect combination which combines great storytelling techniques and new technology in order to provide a more full depiction of the world around us than we’ve gotten before.

Planet Earth is the stand out here due to its length and, by design, look at our world as a whole.  However, the other three documentaries, filmed in much the same style, provide us with in-depth looks at things which Planet Earth does not.   Narrated by Tilda Swinton, Galapagos, for my money, is more regularly beautiful than Planet Earth.   Some of the stories that it, Wild China, and Ganges are able to tell are, perhaps, more generally accessible for their discussions of people and culture in addition to animals and terrain.  Then again, it may be that because Planet Earth is such a monumental, and monumentally large, documentary it feels slightly less accessible in comparison.

Presented in high definition, this four documentary set is a tribute to just how beautiful a natural history documentary can be.  It is true, as stated above, that some of the scenes have more digital noise than one might wish, but it must be remembered that these pieces haven’t been filmed in studio under perfect conditions – they have been filmed out in the wild where the cameramen and producers have to deal with uncertain conditions (and wild animals).  The rich colors and high levels of detail enhance the already incredible photography and help make this a true visual treat. 

As for the soundtracks, the various discs are as follows:  Planet Earth – DTS-HD 5.1, Wild China – 5.1 Surround Sound, Galapagos – stereo, and Ganges – 5.1 DTS.  What the tracks have in common is that the ambient nature sounds, dialogue, and score are perfectly mixed.  Even the tracks that contain surrounds find them less used than they would be in a big-budget Hollywood film.  As for the differences, if one spends time swapping out discs and comparing the tracks they will note that the DTS-HD soundtrack is the most full and rich, but even the stereo and 5.1 surround tracks sound good.  They are not as vibrant, they are not as lively, but simply listening to the audio on each as presented rather than actively trying to draw a comparison, will probably lead to most people finding the less full tracks perfectly acceptable.

Where the obvious differences truly arrive is with the special features.  Galapagos lacks any at all, and that is a shame.  Wild China has a single making-of piece on what went into searching for dragons.  Ganges contains both behind the scenes pieces and deleted scenes, while Planet Earth:  Special Edition contains production diaries, commentary tracks, and extra programs as well.  Again, Planet Earth is the star of the set and it is treated as such here – it comprises six of the 10 discs in the set.  All the behind the scenes pieces amaze and impress, it clearly takes an incredible amount of effort to get the footage contained in these documentaries.  The Planet Earth pieces take one through the process on much more of a step-by-step level than the bonus features on the other programs and remains engrossing throughout.

It should be noted that a similar set of material was released about four years ago.  The difference between that set and this is the inclusion of the “Special Edition” of Planet Earth (more extras) as opposed to the standard.  Anyone out there who wants to be amazed by the beauty of the world in which we live and marvel in wonder at just what goes on behind the scenes in bringing that beauty into our homes would do well to get this spectacular group of documentaries.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.