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Case Number 18985: Small Claims Court

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Smithsonian Channel // 2007 // 47 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Kent Dixon (Retired) // May 27th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Kent Dixon has been struck by lightning 53 times, but there doesn't seem to be any lasting...squirrel!

The Charge

A daredevil quest into the eye of the storm.

The Case

There are few natural phenomena that have as universal appeal and fascination as thunderstorms. As children they scare us and send us running for cover, but as we get older it's hard not to marvel at the sheer untamed force of one of nature's most awesome spectacles. I'm often the first one on the front porch to watch a good storm and can sit mesmerized, counting the gaps between lightning and thunder, hoping the bulk of the storm will pass my way. I was immediately intrigued when I heard about the Smithsonian Network's documentary Thunderheads and was eager to get up close and personal with "Hector," one of the most infamous and intense recurring thunderstorms in the world.

Forming the foundation of the Thunderheads story is a project known as I.C.E., the International Cloud Experiment. The project's objective was to gather data on storm formation with the hopes of learning not only what causes thunderstorms to develop, but also what effects pollution and other environmental factors have on storm frequency and severity. The experiment took place in the winter of 2006, after three years of planning, and brought together pilots and scientists from around the world to pool their expertise.

The first thing viewers will notice is that you're pretty much thrown into the feature head first, with relatively little background on the project. There's also an unnecessary effort to highlight the tensions between the scientists on the ground monitoring data and the pilots risking their lives, skirting the storm to gather first-hand data. I was eagerly anticipating a Twister-esque documentary about daredevil researchers, filled with close calls and stunning footage of storms, but I was a bit disappointed by the reality of what Thunderheads had to offer. Likely one of the biggest tragedies was that the production wasn't given enough time to more thoroughly profile any of the interesting individuals involved in the project; what we get is fascinating, but more would have been better.

Yes, there's some great footage here and there's also a smattering of close calls and excitement, but Thunderheads seems to have an identity crisis due to a lot of technical information, contrived controversy, and too little in-the-field storm footage. For me at least, the documentary feels more like a doctoral thesis than the engaging, high-intensity thrill ride it could have been. Granted, the feature is constrained somewhat by its 47-minute run time, and at its heart this was a complex scientific experiment, but it seems more thought could have gone into what was included in the finished product to provide more overall entertainment value. All this said, the eight- and 10-year-olds in my house were glued to the screen for the entire documentary, asking questions all along the way. My gripe is only that Thunderheads could have been more than just the sum of its parts, but sadly isn't.

The audio and video presentation are both solid but never contribute much to raise the bar above average. The only extra features included on this release are 12 short previews for other Smithsonian Channel DVD releases.

The Verdict

While Thunderheads does its best to highlight the excitement and danger of a complex scientific project designed to help researchers understand storm formation, it is ultimately restricted by its short runtime. The producers are released on their own recognizance to edit better next time.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: Smithsonian Channel
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 47 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• Official Site

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