Blue Planet reveals the Earth to us as only few people have ever seen it: from space.
Orbiting 200 miles above the Earth's surface, we can see familiar landforms: the
majestic Himalayas, giant Namib desert sand dunes, jewel-like Caribbean islands. From
this unique vantage point we see how natural forces - volcanoes, earthquakes and
hurricanes - affect our planet, and how a powerful new force - humankind - has begun
to alter the face of the Earth. From Amazon rain forests to Serengeti grasslands, Blue
Planet inspires a new appreciation of life on Earth, our only home.
Featuring dazzling views from space as well as noteworthy sights on the Earth's surface, Blue Planet tackles a tremendous range of material. Too many topics are covered for a focused production. From the atmosphere of neighboring planets to footage of San Francisco's Bay Bridge after the '89 earthquake to sea creatures living amidst volcanic activity deep in the Gulf of Aqaba, the IMAX documentary proves itself jack of all trades, master of none. It also turns into a condemnation of human activity toward the end. Finally, it degenerates into a series of nonstatements about our planet that intend to be uplifting and inspirational but are ultimately banal. Well, at least the views are spectacular.
The resolution and images of Earth from space are the two strong points of Blue Planet.
The Blu-ray includes another documentary: The Dream Is Alive. Essentially an advertisement for Lockheed and NASA, this feature is shorter and more focused than Blue Planet. With additional high resolution shots of Earth from the space shuttle, and interesting footage of astronauts and NASA workers in action, it will be a key purchase only for fans of space exploration. Walter Cronkite's narration is a nice touch that harkens back to the golden age of America's space program. But Blue Planet's voiceover by Toni Myers is a bit odd for reasons explained in the audio section.
Blue Planet opens with footage from the U.S. landing on the moon. Noisy, flickering NTSC imagery plays in a small area at the center of the screen. That was the then. Blu-ray is now. The old footage ends and slowly the screen fills with our planet in all its 1080p glory. The detail is extraordinary, especially compared to the original broadcast footage from the lunar expedition. Color saturation is remarkable, with vibrant shades of blue and green. Browns and beiges mark most areas of land masses blocked in random patterns by white clouds that show stunning textures, and framed on the horizon by the inky blackness of space.
Overall, the video is clean. Some film noise is visible. Not just grain, but larger blemishes appear intermittently which does not diminish the overall stellar look of the production. However, a minor problem lies in some jumping of the picture. This is not surprising, given that powerful lenses were mounted to the space station, pointing down at Earth more than 200 miles below. The small jumps and motion do not generate digital artefacts, nor do they hinder the spectacular imagery any more than the film noise. It's only noteworthy in comparison with the Planet Earth series, in which the camera-work is smooth and rock steady. The difference is easily explained by advances in stabilization technology that were not available when Blue Planet was produced in 1990. The Dream Is Alive was produced in 1985.
The kindest way to describe the audio in Blue Planet: it's all over the map. The Dolby TrueHD delivers detailed, realistic audio, but the assignment of content to the surround channels is perplexing. Surrounds and subwoofer are used as prominently in the mix as the center, with loud background music. Even worse, sounds that should be assigned to the center are assigned to the surrounds instead. Watch the scene where the elephant takes a bite out of a tree branch on the African plains. As the narrator's voice is heard somewhat weakly in the center channel, the sound of the elephant crunching branches comes not from the front but the rear! This manner of ping-pong surround stereophonics should never happen. The amateur mastering hurts the overall presentation.
The Dream Is Alive has a better audio scheme. Cronkite's voice is anchored in the center, with most other sounds mastered at a lower level. Unfortunately, some audio that also should be assigned to the center again is in the rears. This includes the relays of astronauts from space. It is distracting to hear their voices coming from the surrounds as if they are behind me. On the positive side, the shuttle launches are recorded and reproduced quite well, with ample use of the LFE. My ear actually popped as I listened to the sound of one launch, as if I was inside the shuttle.
The Dream Is Alive is promoted as a "bonus movie" on this BD, but no other features are included. All you get is the 44-minute Blue Planet and the 37-minute The Dream Is Alive, clocking in at a total of one hour, 21 minutes. That's not much material.
NASA/Ames and Lockheed did a good job in documenting the views of Earth from space, but somewhere between filming and assembling the footage into an IMAX production, the focus was lost. Lockheed teamed up with the Smithsonian Institution to deliver the more focused The Dream Is Alive, showing a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes during astronaut training and shuttle missions. But neither film is deeply informative or captivating.
While the more comprehensive Planet Earth series puts the focus on natural phenomena and plant and animal life in remote areas rarely seen by the human eye, the developers of Blue Planet seemed to not know where to focus. One moment we are with astronauts 200 miles into space. The next we are shown footage of hurricane Hugo and its impact on Puerto Rico and North Carolina. The anemic voiceover talks about the importance of our protective atmosphere. At another point, the focus is on red algae. And finally, the message is that humans are destroying the planet end we are told that Earth is home to all of us, even "Israelis and Arabs".
I found the entire narration disjointed and a bit unprofessional. The overall focus was on planetary phenomena that can be seen from space and, had Blue Planet not strayed from that, it would have been better. Instead it took off on such tangents as a computer-simulation of aerial views of the San Andreas fault. By today's standards, it looks like a boring, low-resolution video game. A more disciplined approach to the documentary would have paid off, especially since it clocks in at less than 45 minutes.
The Dream Is Alive had more thought put into its beginning, middle and end, although at times it too seemed more like a loose collage of facts and footage. Of the two, the imagery of Blue Planet was more enjoyable. Overall, I can only recommend this BD to die-hard fans of documentaries, space shuttles or astronauts. If you're looking for a great documentary, Planet Earth is the way to go.