Artisan // 2001 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 23rd, 2001
Bigger Than Your Imagination.
After finding a frozen woolly mammoth in Siberia, an international team of scientists cut it out with a huge chunk of permafrost and undertake the archaeological search of a lifetime: to find out more than anyone before has about this extinct creature. Unfortunately I got the feeling they don't know a lot more now than they did at the beginning of the documentary, since the work is still so incomplete. This led me to wonder why they bothered to finish the documentary at this point. However, there is still a wealth of scientific knowledge (even if it is nothing new to the scientists) given to us here, and science buffs, especially archaeology ones, may find it educational. Artisan has released the documentary with a commentary track and behind the scenes features.
This was a thrilling premise to start with: the idea that we could find a frozen, intact mammoth. Who knows what we might learn, and the documentary hints that it might even be possible to use DNA from such a find to bring back a living specimen. Heady stuff; Jurassic Park come to life, if you will. Since I've always been a science geek and actually watch the Discovery Channel and PBS specials for fun, I should be smack in the middle of the target audience for this. And there is a lot to learn and see here, especially the painstakingly slow and methodical task it is to be an archaeologist. Back when I was a kid, there was a time when I thought I might pursue this vocation, but I eventually decided I didn't have the patience for it. Pretty much everything they know about mammoths you will get here in the documentary, with some new information such as the fact that they now know they ate grass. I'd always taken that as a given, but now they know for sure from pollen attached to the mammoth.
An awful lot of the rest of the documentary is conjecture. They study elephants to try to determine the habits of woolly mammoths, which is useful I suppose, but there is no way to prove there is a correlation. Likewise, a goodly portion of the film is the debate about the cause of the mammoth's extinction; whether it was climactic change or something else. So far no definitive proof here either.
This isn't the type of disc to truly judge picture quality, since it was done as a documentary, often with hand held cameras. That said, the camera work was quite well done considering the weather conditions in Siberia and light conditions inside the ice cave in which they store the mammoth. They even went all out for an anamorphic transfer. Everything looks very clear, and ranks up with most outdoor documentaries of this type. They went all out for a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which allows more presence in the musical score, which plays for dramatic effect.
There is some extra content to be found as well. There is a commentary track in which the scientists discuss what went into making the program, and the composer talks about his process in writing the musical score. Eighteen minutes of behind the scenes footage is also added as an extra, which was rather odd since it seemed much like the rest of the documentary. A photo gallery and trailer complete the extra content.
While I certainly respect the scientists who braved the Siberian tundra in search of new knowledge, and certainly their persistence in the backbreaking work of digging through frozen earth in search of fossils and other signs of extinct life, I wasn't quite so happy with the documentary. My biggest problem with it was that the hype surrounding it and the beginning of the documentary tried to imply there would be some fantastic new information to be revealed within. The truth is there wasn't. They've barely scratched the surface of digging into the ice block to see the mammoth beneath. They still don't know how much of the mammoth is intact underneath. I understand this is a slow process (boy do I understand after 90 minutes of watching how slow it was), but for the life of me I can't understand why they wanted to finish this documentary at this point at all. It will likely be years still before they know just what they've found. I'll be happy to watch again when they actually finish their work. But right now I frankly felt cheated.
The other point they seemed to dangle in front of us in the documentary was the possibility to clone a mammoth from frozen remains. I had to wait the entire documentary to find out that they won't be able to, because of the classic water crystal damage to cells when something isn't frozen just right. It took them 90 minutes to tell me that little tidbit, and I felt manipulated into even allowing for the possibility as the documentary progressed. Cheated again.
Part of the hype on the television spots for this program has shown CGI mammoths. I thought this would be much like Walking With Dinosaurs, an excellent and highly recommended work. Unfortunately, I thought the CGI work looked poor at best. Perhaps all the hair made it too difficult to do with the budgetary constraints. I was disappointed.
I should also mention that the packaging claims that the aspect ratio is 2.35:1; I would say closer to 1.78:1, which would be perfect for a 16x9 display.
If you like to see the painstaking process of scientific field work, and don't mind that there is still much to do before there are any real answers, then you should like this disc. On the other hand, the Discovery Channel has been showing the program (albeit probably, and thankfully, shortened) on cable, so if you can see it there you would probably be better off.
I really feel like I am the target audience for a documentary like this, and if I was disappointed, most others will be as well.
Fines all around for disingenuous manipulation of the audience; implying they knew things they didn't in an effort to get you to watch. More fines for an incomplete work; this documentary should have been held up until they knew exactly what was under that block of ice, since the frozen mammoth was the real selling point. At the least they could have been honest about how incomplete the work was from the beginning. Artisan is acquitted for giving even this type of fare an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind the Scenes Footage
* Commentary Track
* Photo Gallery
* Mammoth Site Museum