Earth The Biography DVD Review

     August 8, 2008

Reviewed by Chris Kallemeyn

The new DVD release entitled Earth The Biography about our terra firma continues the recent string of high-quality BBC-produced documentaries, originally seen with The Blue Planet and then more recently with the amazing series Planet Earth. This time the filmmakers have tapped into some kind of adrenaline high when they made this new series that spans the globe. This two-disk DVD includes 5 one-hour episodes, each focusing on a different aspect of the Earth and its history. It quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers really wanted to make this series as dramatic as possible to allow each episode to stand out among the many other environmental documentaries now available. Our intrepid guide and narrator throughout the series is Scottish geologist Iain Stewart, who often seems more like an extreme sports enthusiast when he’s exploring the four corners of the planet to illustrate to us Earth’s dynamic forces at work.

The first episode about Earth’s volcanic activity is the most dramatic of this series, featuring stunning images of boiling cauldrons of lava, pyroclastic flows of super-heated ash and shaky videos of Earthquake devastation. Additionally, the documentary uses computer animation, a technique used throughout the entire series, to show the inner working of the Earth and the complex interaction of events that work to make this planet tick. Another great technique used here is comparative planetary geology where by contrasting our planet with other planets and moons in our solar system we learn more about our own world.

By the time I got to episode two about the Earth’s atmosphere, I was already starting to wonder how the filmmakers would be able to keep up the pace of adventure and excitement with a science documentary about air. To dispel my cynicism, Dr. Stewart straps himself into a 40-year old jet-fighter to fly high up into the stratosphere. Again, the modus operandi of the filmmakers here is applying ample amounts of action and drama with an end result that is both entertaining and educational. Weaving beautiful time-laps cloud footage, weird images of lightning and sky-divers surfing through the air with boggy boards, we gradually get a full picture of Earth’s dynamic atmosphere. Yes, there are occasional dire warnings about global warming, but these scenes never become alarmist diatribes and the facts are always backed up with objective science.

The next episode, Ice, becomes a good example of how the filmmakers are able to convey the fragile nature of our environment without sounding like Chicken Little. While Dr Stewart bounds across ice crevasses and scales shear glacier walls, he subtly shows us the visible evidence of Earth’s accelerated warming and the results this is having on the polar regions of the planet.

Episode four focuses on the Earth’s oceans and the dramatic cause-and-effect dynamics that was critical for shaping life on Earth. Tidal forces are explained with both clear CG sequences and amazing shots of surfers beaten down by massive waves. By looking into the past four billion years ago, the documentary shows us how comets delivered half of all water on our planet, how continents split apart to form oceans, and even how some seas become isolated to evaporate into deserts. The vast network of currents spanning the globe are illustrated with a humorous sequence chronicling a recent event when thousands of rubber ducky bath toys were swept off a container ship to drift across the far flung beaches throughout the world.


The documentary on this 2-disk DVD looks amazing; the picture quality is clear and sharp, especially the stunning vistas of the many different landscapes featured throughout the series. Each of the 5 one-hour episodes is presented in the widescreen format (enhanced for 16×9 TVs). The audio is in 5.1 Dolby surround sound, and with special mention here for a great soundtrack by composer Ty Unwin that works well to compliment the great visuals. Iain Stewart’s Scottish accent is pretty thick at times but he is always easy to understand, so I never had to use the English language subtitles, but I’m always glad to see this option is available even if I don’t use it.

Final Words:

The final episode, entitled ‘Rare Earth’, is the most interesting episode on this 2-disk DVD. By using computer animation, time-lapse images and aerial photography, this series makes good use of all its bags of visual tricks to accurately describe many of the improbable series of events that occurred over the Earth’s billions of years of history. These large time scales can often be difficult to wrap your brain around but Iain Stewart’s action-packed narration woks well to simplify these ideas without dumbing down the science. One is left with a profound sense of how life evolved on Earth against all the odds working against it, and how lucky we are to be living at a time with such a vast diversity of complex life forms. Lets hope for the sake of Earth’s future history that we don’t fuck it all up.

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