Case Number 13772: Small Claims Court


History Channel // 2003 // 846 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // June 5th, 2008

The Charge

It's not rubber-necking if it's educational.

The Case

When Modern Marvels started peppering its seasons with tales of historical catastrophes, I felt the kind of immature glee not experienced since FOX stopped airing "World's Wildest Police Chases Where Animals Attack." While nothing can compare to home videos of train vs. car or someone rampaging through the suburbs in a stolen tank, rocket explosions and building collapses come pretty close.

While the regular installments of the series focus on human success, the Engineering Disasters episodes take that morbid human itch for fire and loud noises and use it to teach, kind of like my 12th grade chemistry teacher. The educational element also means we no longer have to deal with parental/spousal/roommate exchanges like these:

*Knock knock knock*
"Are you laughing at other people's misfortunes in there?"
"Are you cheering those people on fire?"

Fortunately the shows remove most of the human element, focusing in on the "why" and "how" of each accident instead of overwrought tales of human tragedy. Very rarely are the firsthand accounts from survivors; instead, the producers interview accident inspectors, photographers, and other witnesses who were outside looking in. The distant approach gives each segment an objective view, and the CGI recreations of the exact moment a design failed offset the gut-churning disaster footage. It's easier to learn when you're not thinking about corpses and devastated families, and feeling guilty for watching.

Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters is an anthology of flood, fire, and cause and effect. The 18 episodes in the collection don't have individual themes (except for the Hurricane Katrina installment) but the chapter menu is set up so that you can skip to straight to your favorite disaster style on each disc. Most of the stories are straight-up tales of human error -- bridge collapses caused by the failure of a single bolt, infernos that could have been avoided with the proper sprinkler system -- but sometimes there's an accident that can be traced back to a convoluted collision of many small events that combined at just the wrong moment. Each episode has to have five or six different disasters so the writers have gone digging as far back as the 19th century to make their quota. Other stories are a stretch: when vats of explosive chemicals are stored outdoors without lids and contractors use half the nails they're supposed to, can the inevitable calamity really be blamed on engineering?

With the success of their new super manly line-up of lumberjacks, truckers, and bigfoot wranglers, it seems like A&E Home Video is going through the motions to get these older series out. Sure, not a lot can be done to clean up the wobbly camcorder and old news footage, but the stereo gets louder with every episode, with the History Channel station ID blaring at the end of each one. The five discs have identical slimline cases with the same lazy, '60s textbook artwork as the slipcase, and I'm using the word "artwork" generously here. To top it all off, the set starts with the fourth Engineering Disasters installment; the first three are missing but can to be purchased with earlier Modern Marvels sets or as separate releases, at the SRP of $24.95 per disc.

Even with the see-saw stereo, missing episodes, and zero features Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters is still a decent set, just not a must buy. Try not to think about those fragile, load-bearing bolts the next time you're traveling.

Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 82

Perp Profile
Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 846 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb