Judge Bill Gibron ponders his place in the entertainment criticism time-space continuum.
Our reviews of The Universe: Collector's Set (published November 5th, 2008), The Universe: Our Solar System (Blu-Ray) (published August 24th, 2010), The Universe: The Complete Season Five (published January 22nd, 2011), The Universe: The Complete Season Five (Blu-Ray) (published March 5th, 2011), The Universe: The Complete Season Four (published February 20th, 2010), The Universe: The Complete Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 4th, 2010), The Universe: The Complete Season Six (Blu-ray) (published May 5th, 2012), The Universe: The Complete Season Three (published May 23rd, 2009), The Universe: The Complete Season Three (Blu-ray) (published October 1st, 2009), The Universe: The Complete Season Two (published October 22nd, 2008), and The Universe: The Complete Series Megaset (Blu-Ray) (published April 13th, 2011) are also available.
Exploring the Edges of the Unknown
Its very existence has inspired everything from philosophical debate to religious fervor. Its secrets continue to mystify scholars and shake up scientists. For every given confirmed by astronomers and physicists, another 100 subsections continue to confuse. It's safe to say that the Universe itself is so vast, so all encompassing in its importance and influence, that a cable channel could make an amazingly detailed series out of its many remarkable facets—and wouldn't you know it, the History Channel has. While Season One focused on the planets and attributes that make up our solar system, The Universe: Complete Season Two (Blu-ray) concentrates on exploring some of the enigmas that exist in the vast regions of space. If you are looking for a compelling Carl Sagan-like take on the subject, you need to explore the seminal Cosmos another time. The Universe is something wholly different. This is nothing more than well done fact-based documentary style talking head material, with some clever CG accents to keep the kiddies awake.
Facts of the Case
Spread out over four discs and running a staggering 14-plus hours, the Second Season of The Universe is a lot like picking up a whole collection of Omni back issues at a local garage sale. As you skim through each issue/episode, you get a little academia, a great deal of speculation, a splash of science fiction, and some fascinating images to look at. While some subjects lend themselves to a more entertaining approach, there is still a great deal of important information and documentation present. One could easily see this series as part of some expansive secondary education course, it so effortlessly covers its often complicated topics. The subjects covered in the 18 episodes included in this Blu-ray box set are as follows:
There are two ways to look at The Universe, both of which provide valid insights into how much you'll enjoy/appreciate the effort here. The first is as a font of compelling scientific information. All of the educators involved, from actual researchers to long held experts in their field, find ways of making this material much more palpable than it should be. After all, there are some fairly mind-bending concepts being freely tossed around here. One moment, we are learning about the tides and how our Moon manages their ebb and flow. The next, someone is trying to explain the cosmic "web" to us. On occasion, it tends to implode, the notion of worm holes or dense dark matter throwing us laymen for a big fat loop. But more times than not, The Universe measures out its critical convolutions in small, digestible dimensions. And since you don't have to know much about the first series to experience the pleasures of the second, there's a self-contained nature to the entire experience.
Still, get ready to have your tiny, media mutated mind blown by some of what these scientists have to say. Space travel gets a good workout, the notion of moving beyond our own solar system given real credence and contemplation. Life on other worlds also finds itself in the debate crosshairs, the age old "inevitability" of such a discovery undermined by some very accurate factual certainties. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the number of people predicting a rapid and rather sensational end to our galaxy. Be it by a huge black hole, a planet/asteroid collision, or a sudden "random quantum fluctuation," there are a lot of hypotheticals that put life on the planet as we know it in serious—albeit speculative—jeopardy. On the other hand, there are times when the subject matter—gravity for example—grows dull and irritating. Between all the magnetic polar spinning core corrections and overall established mumbo jumbo, we wonder if a better subject couldn't have been unearthed.
The second way to look at this material is as a marvelous feast for the eyes. The special effects here, while relegated to recreations using computer graphics and images, really help sell the spectacle, and there are times when the visuals validate the outsized ideas being tossed around. We've seen some of this material before—whenever anyone discusses the Milky Way or the various supernovas that have occurred, we get the standard picture presentations. But the notion of what goes on inside a black hole, or the after effects of two planets colliding makes for wonderful blockbuster viewing. Indeed, The Universe stimulates more than just your brain. It's an amazing optical gallery and a wise window into one's soul. It's intriguing to think about what lies beyond the simple stars in our galaxy. A show like this helps fuel said conjecture while delivering enough education and insight to make the journey seem less winsome.
Blu-ray is the way to go with something like The Universe. The 1.78:1 1080i transfer is terrific, retaining the look and feel of high definition presentation. The older stock footage does suffer, but overall, the special effects, CGI, and interview material looks amazing. The colors are crisp and very bright, and there is a density of detail that is hard to beat. While there a few flaws here and there (some vague halos around some planets, a few seconds of optical bleeding) there is much more good than bad. Much more. Sadly, the sonic situation is a little less impressive. Instead of giving us an HD Master audio track and something a little more imposing, The Universe is presented in standard stereo—and it's PCM uncompressed 2.0 at that. Considering the ambient elements involved (and the constant musical score), one would figure that a 5.1 Surround soundtrack would be mandatory. Alas, we appear to have a project that believes in its broadcast reality to the point of aiming all its attributes toward a TV sized screen. As for added content, we get a rather lifeless look at "Backyard Astronauts" (amateur astronomers and space scientists). That's it.
When Carl Sagan unveiled Cosmos back in 1980, it was viewed as a visionary work of all encompassing wonder. Few thought it could be improved upon, and from an entertainment standpoint, they are right. The late, great scientific scholar infused his outsized work with a kind of mystical humanism that is all but missing from something like The Universe: Complete Season Two. Luckily, this updated series has nearly three decades of additional research and revelations to work with, so we'll take the occasional droning mathematician for the sake of factual clarity. Even in its second season, this History Channel offering discovers new and unique ways of bringing our massive cosmic neighborhood to life. While it may not quell the conversation about how we got here, who "made" us, and what such a god-given/god-less existence truly means, it will provide hours of contemporary and in-depth information.
Not guilty. A very inventive and intriguing journey through the
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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