National Geographic // 2010 // 270 Minutes // Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // July 1st, 2010
Is your passport ready?
In April, the National Geographic Channel premiered a new travel-based miniseries. In this case, though, the Grand Tour was really a Grand Tour. Using a combination of interviews, archival footage, and some really nice CGI work, A Traveler's Guide to the Planets wants to make sure that you know what to pack -- apart from your towel, of course.
You get all six episodes on two discs:
* Mercury & Venus
* Uranus and Neptune
* Pluto and Beyond
The conceit of a planetary travelogue may have looked good on paper, but execution-wise, not so much. Part of the problem is self-evident: How many times can you build up traveling to a planet only to "reveal" what everyone already knows: namely, that the odds for survival are only slighter better than that of a Spinal Tap drummer? The best representation of those chances is seen in the segment on Venus, when a scientist demonstrates the technical challenges confronting even simple unmanned probes by placing a digital camera into a representation of the Venusian surface -- the inside of a pottery kiln. We get a nice close-up of the camera as it bursts into flame and collapses into a puddle of slag. Hope he had a replacement warranty on that thing.
On the other hand, the travel idea is at its best when the scientists talk about what they would want to see if they could visit a given world. That's where the episodes really shine, because the scientists' energy and enthusiasm is so infectious, and they're talking about such amazing features, such as the hexagonal cloud formation at one of Saturn's poles, or all of the anomalies on Saturn's moon Enceladus -- anomalies that suggest the presence of water as well as organic materials.
At times, you can't help but get the impression that the editor suffers from ADHD; there are a lot of quick cuts back and forth between various representations, and in some cases, some odd editing choices, such as quickly switching between regular and negative images for no apparent reason.
Technically, the disc is a knockout. Video is strong with crisp images and vibrant colors -- National Geographic knows from great photography, even computer-generated photography.
The surround sound does a good job particularly with the show's understated but effective score. The only extras are two brief (about 2 minutes each) bits on the Sun and the Moon. They come across a bit like pitches for full-scale episodes.
A Traveler's Guide to the Planets is a good set, but its appeal may be limited to middle and junior high schools students due to its Ritalin-fueled approach.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: National Geographic
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 270 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated
* Official Website