BBC Video // 2008 // 230 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 7th, 2008
The story of our world.
Sitting down to Earth: The Biography, I wasn't that excited. After all, I vaguely remember that unit in my high school science class, and I wasn't blown away then. Early into the first episode, though, I realized that this was a completely different animal. This is more than a simple nature documentary. Instead, this is a fairly comprehensive analysis of how our world works and how fortunate we are to be alive at all.
In a lot of ways, Earth: The Biography operates as an enrichment and continuation of An Inconvenient Truth. Like its famous predecessor, it takes a close look at how the world lives and breathes, then examines how this living, breathing organism is being affected by humankind. This series, though, spends much more time on that first half of the equation: how Earth came to support life in the first place and how volcanoes, the atmosphere, and oceans combine forces to keep our planet alive.
Certainly, a lot of this is stuff we've heard before, in tired old high school science videos that talk about the awesome power of nature. Don't get scared off, though. There are a couple things that really set Earth: The Biography apart from what you remember from those old 8MM reels. The first is the budget and cinematography. Here, when they are talking about volcanoes, we get to see cool archival footage, animated diagrams, and on-location footage all around the world that highlights exactly how volcanoes work. When talking about the atmosphere, we get to follow sky divers from far above the clouds, seeing the theories in action. The history and development of the oceans are shown through footage the world over, including several sights that have only been seen by a handful of people before. The result is impressive. Earth: The Biography rarely feels like a science video, and instead becomes a fascinating travelogue of the earth's internal workings. Had this been out 15 years ago, I probably would have been much more enthusiastic about my science courses.
The other saving grace is the spectacular charisma and enthusiasm of host Iain Stewart. Long gone is the graceless monotone of high school videos -- they have been replaced by one of the most engaging hosts that also has a PhD. His verbal enthusiasm (and knowledge) are consistently engaging even when the cinematography is ignored, and that's nothing compared to his unique approach. Stewart doesn't just narrate the series, he goes to each and every one of the locations and walks us through personally. He flies up to 50,000 feet in an airplane, and goes scuba diving, and climbs down to the Ethiopian lava lake. His enthusiasm for the experience is infectious, and it completely changes the experience of watching a science video. At times, he's almost too enthusiastic, but I'd probably be excited too if I was being paid to travel all around the world.
Most interesting, though, is the conclusion that Stewart reaches at the end. Many of the current breed of environmental documentaries are a bit scary: the message is that we are about to destroy the world and everything in it. Stewart doesn't share that fear, and the reasons are explained well in Earth: The Biography. The Earth has survived a multitude of disasters, from ice ages that covered the globe to near-planet-killing asteroids. Each time, the Earth has been able to use volcanoes, the atmosphere, and oceans to return things to an equilibrium. Perhaps we should be more worried about ourselves, though, unless we want to live through an ice age or a flurry of volcanoes and earthquakes. All evidence points toward the fact that the Earth will be here long after we are gone, and that we should be as respectful as possible. Our world shows a furious wrath when it is threatened.
In technical terms, Earth: The Biography comes in a beautiful package. Clearly shot for high def, the video transfer leaves nothing to be desired. The footage is clear and sharp, and I noticed few artifacts. The sound transfer is also excellent, though it's easier to understand Stewart in narration than on location. Not his fault there are crashing waves beside him, I suppose. The real failing of the disc is in the extras department. With science documentaries, it's nice to get additional content, whether it's in the form of digital content, learning guides, or just extra footage on the disc. With Earth: The Biography, there's no such content.
Still, I can recommend Earth: The Biography to anyone without
hesitation. It's a fascinating portrait of our world, full of sights that apply
new meaning to theories I was already vaguely familiar with. Whether you are
already an ecological expert or just curious about the world we live in,
Earth: The Biography offers hours of fascination and entertainment. Not
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 230 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official National Geographic Channel Site
* Official BBC Site