History Channel // 2009 // 564 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 4th, 2010
"In the beginning, there was darkness...and then, BANG."
The History Channel's The Universe is what happens when science documentary makers, dejected from low ratings and disinterest in their subject matters, take a page from tabloid journalism and just start making things up. All show and no substance, The Universe offers few facts; instead, bending and distorting science to fit a formulaic episode outline of CGI elements colliding with other CGI elements and exploding in an epileptic cacophony of color and sound set to excessively dramatic buzz words, music and narration. One could call it a science-themed show, in the same way that the National Enquirer is a news-themed magazine.
"Death stars! The most dangerous and catastrophic event known to man! Cataclysmic destruction of the planet Earth! It could happen! Well, in a hundred thousand years, and too far away from Earth for any impact to humans...but it could happen! Scientists just don't know for sure. It's in Revelations, people!" To illustrate the point, let's throw in some CGI animation showing life as we know it ending. Lucky us, we get twelve hours of it.
The Universe: The Complete Season Four (Blu-Ray) contains all twelve episodes from the fourth season of the History Channel's popular show, spread across three Blu-Ray discs:
* "Death Stars"
* "The Day the Moon Was Gone"
* "It Fell From Space"
* "Biggest Blasts"
* "The Hunt for Ringed Planets"
* "10 Ways to Destroy the Earth"
* "The Search for Cosmic Clusters"
* "Space Wars"
* "Liquid Universe"
* "Pulsars & Quasars"
* "Science Fiction/Science Fact"
* "Extreme Energy"
I'm being extremely critical of The Universe, but I have a good reason for it. This is a show that treats its audiences like idiots. The same foresight that goes into developing new reality television programming and summer blockbuster films has gone into developing a science documentary show with more speculative action and adventure than audiences can process with their senses. Having watched all twelve hours of The Universe: The Complete Season Four (Blu-Ray), I can't think of a single fact of information I actually retained, other than a general sensation of the universe being a Hollywood movie gone horribly awry, full of bursts of energy, explosions, radioactive infernos, and gamma rays where the only outcome is mass extinction for Earth.
This is the scientific equivalent of training wheels; every second sentence spoken by the narrator ends with a question mark. The gravelly tones of the narrative, so somber and serious, could sell ice to an Eskimo. Buzz words like "shocking," "doom," "deadly," "time bomb," and "massive" fly at audiences like bullets from a Howitzer, eroding our common sense and stimulating the Michael Bay pleasure center of our brain. The lavish CGI sequences are the selling point here; The Universe takes an almost perverse pleasure in illustrating all manner of cosmic catastrophes as they would relate to Earth. You name it, we see it slamming into Earth -- rocks, meteors, gamma bursts, tidal waves, and on and on. It is pure, unadulterated disaster pornography on a colossal scale.
With some editing and toning down of the ridiculous theatricals, you might be able to salvage The Universe into something that actually resembles real astronomy, physics, and science. Give credit where credit is due; there is scientific knowledge and factual information present, but in the way ship movements hid in the Enigma transmissions from Germany in World War II. The science is here, but buried, encrypted, and not easily accessible. The vast majority of the episodes are just shameless, like "10 Ways to Destroy the Earth," "Death Stars," and "Space Wars," but the less inherently stupid and sensational episodes, once they settle down to actually discussing the issue at hand, actually make an effort to convey some information. Yes, it might be a profoundly stupid idea to make an episode about what happens if the moon suddenly vanished -- because why? -- but tucked between all the CGI disaster simulation footage comes actual information about tidal patterns, gravitational forces, and ecological impact. Some episodes, like "The Hunt for Ringed Planets" or "Liquid Universe," actually forget about the whole "destroying Earth" thing and just tell us things. What a novel concept!
I guess you can't really blame The Universe for wanting people to be interested in science, physics, and astronomy via CGI spectacle. They've found a formula that translates into ratings. Good for them, truthfully; everyone's got to eat. Who knows? If it gets people interested in the universe, can it be a bad thing? One could make an argument that watching The Universe is better than watching no scientific programming at all. In a perfect world, kids will watch this schlock and trade their video game controller for telescopes, and I sincerely hope this is the case. If this can be statistically proven, I'll write a letter of apology straight to the History Channel.
You can bash the content in The Universe: The Complete Season Four, but you can't say an unkind word about the Blu-Ray presentation. The 1080p transfer is top-notch for a cable television show, and standard DVD simply can't do the show justice. The CGI-created sequences are perfect, as they should be, with sumptuous black levels, magnificently vibrant colors and perfect detail and sharpness. The interview sequences are good, but less impressive; they vary from shot-to-shot and exhibit grain and softness. Audio is a simple but well-executed uncompress PCM stereo track, with clear dialogue and strong bass response. The endlessly dramatic and excitable score moans, groans and pounds nonstop throughout the feature, and the CGI sequences are accompanied by the expected explosions and chaos. Crank the volume, and The Universe: The Complete Season Four looks and sounds better than any documentary television show has a right to. Extras are thin; we get two small featurettes, "Meteors: Fire in the Sky" and "Comets: Prophets of Doom," that barely amount to ten minutes in combined length. This is filler, nothing else.
The Universe: The Complete Season Four (Blu-Ray) puts too much emphasis on speculation and fanfare and not enough on actual learning. If you're a fan of the series, you'll know what to expect with this Blu-Ray treatment. The transfer is tight; pretty on the eyes and light on the brain. How much actual learning you get out of The Universe is open to debate.
10% science + 90% over-the-top CGI hype = 100% guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 564 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated