Judge Kristin Munson considers the flipper format one of the Seven Blunders of the DVD World.
How the Modern world was forged.
Facts of the Case
As a rule, I hate docu-dramas. Nothing pulls me out of a program faster than a hammy actor under a novelty moustache or a familiar face popping in to play some historical character, turning a serious look at the Lusitania into "Hey isn't that the guy who played Rebus? No, the other guy. I don't know how they explained it; I don't watch the show."
Seven Wonders of the Industrial World takes a big risk by treating each engineering wonder as though it were being built today, including sit-down "interviews" with the engineers and visits to the building sites. The technique is weird at first, like an Industrial Age version of The Office, and I kept waiting for the moment when someone's compass was going to be sealed in Jell-O. But, because the series focuses more on the battles during the design and construction than details of the architecture, it's better at drawing you into the story than a load of old blueprints and newspaper illustrations.
The mini-series covers a period from the 1800s to the 1930s, dramatizing the stories behind the S.S Great Eastern, the Brooklyn Bridge, Bell Rock Lighthouse, the Transcontinental Railroad, the London Sewer, the Panama Canal, and the Hoover Dam. Every wonder has its share of tragedies and triumphs and, by using diaries, newspaper interviews, and letters to script the interview segments, the series turns textbook entries back into flesh and blood people. I like that the show presents the engineers warts and all, whether they're a gentle genius or an arrogant jerk, and that it doesn't forget the stories of the unsung heroes who took the risks and did the physical labor.
These are just some of the facts I picked up while watching this disc:
• The shifting tides and stormy weather on Scotland's Bell Rock only allowed construction for four hours a day, 12 weeks a year.
• The London sewer system was built to stop the cholera epidemic and only succeeded by a lucky coincidence: scientists thought it was the stink, rather than the actual sewage causing the disease.
• Frank Crowe finished the Hoover Dam two years ahead of schedule by exploiting the desperation of a Depression-era workforce. Workers and their families lived in shanty towns and wore hard hats made from baseball caps, and dangerous conditions on the site killed three men a week.
The widescreen transfer and 2.0 stereo is nearly flawless, showcasing the beautiful location footage of rainforests, canyons, and crashing oceans. The picture is so clean you can practically smell the sweat rolling off the construction workers, but this also causes some problems. Obviously, setting the dramas in the real world requires a lot of CGI work to turn today's landscapes and skylines into last century's, and the transfer reveals every flaw of the computer rendering. Boats float in water a different color than the ocean around them, chimney smoke and explosions are obviously fake, and sometimes the camera will pan up a from a fantastic set or natural landscape to reveal a Vaseline-smudged background populated by animated blobs. Besides a lack of bonus features, the DVD's only other drawback is that it's a flipper, with the episode listing for each side printed in microscopic letters around the hub.
Seven Wonders of the Industrial World strikes a perfect balnce between too dry and too silly, with a strong cast that isn't so recognizable that it ruins the documentary illusion. It's interesting, uplifting, and appealing—especially if you enjoyed You Are There—and bound to make a few converts out of docu-drama haters.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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