Cosmic Voyage

Cosmic Voyage and Destiny in Space on Blu-ray disc

If there's one film format that seems born for Blu-ray's 1080p resolution and high quality sound, it's IMAX.

So it was with gusto that we tore open Warners' Blu-ray release of Cosmic Voyage with the bonus IMAX film Destiny in Space. What better way to explore the universe, from its tiniest particle to its greatest expanse (as the cover blurb says) than in 1080p and on our 106 inch screen fed by a lovely Epson front projector, with superb audio as provided by our Rotel-powered system and JBL speakers?

We can't think of one, except possibly for an even larger screen, but that would mean moving to an even larger house….

Anyway, Cosmic Voyage is an interesting and entertaining look at our universe, from the smallest objects known at the time of the film's production to the farthest reaches of the known universe.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film uses extensive computer graphics to zoom outward from Venice to the edge of known space. The filmmakers' hook is a hula hoop, er, athletic hoop, a loop one meter in diameter, as their base. Zooming out, a new loop appears over the land, planet or starscape as each scale of ten is passed, which spoils the view a bit but which is quite illustrative of the scale of the cosmos.

The zoom itself is reminiscent of the one at the beginning of Robert Zemeckis' masterpiece Contact, so far as its structure is concerned, while the content is closer to the zoom used in Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series from a couple of decades back. It's interesting, rendered beautifully, and looks great in high definition.

Then they head toward inner space, using the same "scale of ten" yardstick except now getting smaller, each successive ring being ten times smaller than the previous. In this manner, we bore in on molecules, and down to atoms and their component parts, ending with a CG rendering of quarks.

It makes for interesting perspective on our universe, a nearly incomprehensible vastness that makes us seem as insignificant as quarks – until we see that we're also "mini-universes" made up of even smaller particles.

The picture quality, 1080p of course, is spectacular, but we were disappointed in the audio. First of all, it's offered only in "regular" Dolby Digital instead of the new formats such as LPCM, Dolby TrueHD or dts HD Master Lossless. The quality is okay, but there's little surround except for the odd object whoosing by you via the rear speakers) and we had to crank it past our "default" level to get an acceptable volume.

Such wasn't the case with the bonus feature "Destiny in Space," a title we saw – and enjoyed immensely – previously on DVD.

Destiny in Space is a more "generic" release in that it doesn't cover a particular space mission but rather is meant as a tribute to the spirit of our extraterrestrial exploration. Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, the Blu-ray disc almost makes you feel as if you're in space as it presents IMAX's high quality images and sounds.

One of the best scenes puts the IMAX camera onto a satellite and kicks it into higher orbit, where it can look down not only upon the blue Earth below, but upon the space shuttle that took it into orbit, floating in space between camera and planet. It's wonderful and exhilarating!

We get to look inside Spacelab, float through the corridors of the shuttle, watch the astronauts undergo experiments into space sickness, living and working in space and learning what a human body requires in order to live in that environment, all in brilliant big screen detail and color.

There's other footage, too, simulated stuff of Venus and Mars as well as looks at Jupiter and, thanks to footage of and from the Hubble Space Telescope, the outer reaches of our galaxy.

Destiny in Space is more than just a look at the space we know now, but is a look ahead to the space we should, and will, get to know in the not too distant future. The fact that it's more than a tad dated (it's from the early 1990's) shouldn't prevent anyone from enjoying it or being left in awe of the glorious images presented.

Audio and video quality are both excellent. The films presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio that fills the widescreen TV's screen fully and the detail, color and contrast are all superb.

The producers also make excellent use of the 5.1 channels of surround sound on Destiny in Space, with voices coming at your from all around the home theater, depending on what's happening.

Surprisingly enough, while we enjoyed both IMAX presentations, the older "Destiny in Space" was a more enjoyable time in the home theater.

Cosmic Voyage/Destiny in Space, from Warner Home Entertainment
36/40 min, 10980p widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio

Dinosaurs Alive!

Dinosaurs Alive! on Blu-ray Disc

Big beasties still rule the world in this Imax-originated BD from Image Entertainment. And while we only get a 2D version of the original 3D production, that's okay since the 3D Blu-rays we've seen have left a lot to be desired as far as picture quality and eye strain are concerned.

Michael Douglas narrates this look into the science of paleontology and the hunt for ever newer (or is it ever older?) information on the gigantic creatures that walked the earth so long ago. Maybe you could call it "the greatest show unearthed."

Or maybe not.

Anyway, Dinosaurs Alive!, as misleading as the title might be, takes us along with some of the world’s pre-eminent paleontologists, with glorious IMAX-sourced picture and sound, as they look at some of history’s largest and most exciting dinosaur digs, from the dunes of the Gobi Desert to the sandstone buttes of New Mexico. No buttes about it! It's unfortunate that Alberta and its dinosaur-rich badlands aren't included, since they're only about an hour from where this review is being written (Not that we're self-indulgent!) and offer manyu spectacular dinosaur relics, but what can you do?  

The movie lets us watch as scientists make new discoveries about how these creatures behaved and lived, what their environments were like – and we're also there when they discover what could be the oldest dinosaur ever unearthed in North America. Why it's older than Robert Byrd!

The bones are augmented by reasonably realistic and supposedly scientifically accurate CGI animation that does a good job of bringing the creatures alive – at least in the manner scientists think currently is how they lived. It's interesting stuff and the movie is done well. The CG scenes may be more accurate than in movies such as Jurassic Park, though they don't look as believable (perhaps Spielberg had a bigger budget…), but that doesn't prevent the movie from being a fascinating look at the thunder lizards and the world they ruled.

We’re also shown some fascinating documentary footage from the 1920's, as the paleontologists of that day – the real pioneers – search for clues as to what made these fascinating creatures tick.

Of course a dino documentary wouldn't be a dino documentary without discussion on what happened to them so long ago that all we have left are bones. And so we look at the current theories about the mass extinction.

There are some pretty beautiful – and some pretty stark – locations in Dinosaurs Alive!, and if you watch the Blu-ray on a truly big screen (we viewed it on a 106 inch front projector system) you'll enjoy its lovely spectacle immensely.

Dinosaurs Alive! is presented in 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), which fits the 16x9 HDTV screen well, and the picture quality is excellent, with great detail and even pretty good depth. The audio is dts HD Master Audio, and it is also very good - quite immersive with dialogue and narration presented well

Special features include an interesting full length “Making Of” featurette shot in HD in which we get to marvel at such things as the filmmakers hauling all this big, heavy and expensive 3D IMAX stuff around to some pretty isolated locations.

There are a couple of other features, too, including "Meet the Creatures", which is self explanatory, and also a dinosaur quiz.

Wild Ocean

Wild Ocean on Blu-ray disc

Nature documentaries can be some of the finest-looking examples of high definition available for the home theater. Such productions as Planet Earth and Wild China not only give people a look at some of "Parent Earth's" most interesting and spectacular sights and events, the fact that they offer it in high definition means they can positively pop off the screen.

Couple that eye-dazzling video potential with the excellent audio quality you can get on Blu-rays and you can have an amazing sightseeing experience in your home theater. If the producers care.

These producers appear to have cared. Wild Ocean is another example of fine high definition nature documentaries, though it is definitely not without its flaws – most of which in this case are more ideological than technological.

Wild Ocean was originally an IMAX presentation, in 2D and 3D, apparently. Created and Directed by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, of STOMP fame, and Presented By Nokia, we get only a 2D version on this Blu-ray  but that's okay to us: we haven't been particularly impressed by the 3D we've seen on Blu-ray to date anyway.

This particular IMAX extravaganza is set along South Africa's Wild Coast, a spectacular piece of real estate where the Zulu and western worlds meet, according to the PR materials, and follows what they bill as "one of nature’s greatest spectacles: " the annual migration of billions of sardines that keep human and non-human predators salivating with anticipation.

Spectacular it is, very much so. We swim with swirling shoals of fish, watch gannets swoop and dive into their midst along with seals, dolphins, and even sharks and whales as they all compete in what Mufasa would have referred to as "the circle of life": the epic struggle for survival.

The photography is positively stunning, as is the 1080p picture quality. As with the best Blu-rays, Wild Ocean simply pops off the screen with a picture that's bright, colorful, and detailed richly.

The publicity materials say Wild Ocean's widescreen presentation (at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1) was transferred from the original IMAX 15/70 print using state-of-the-art scanning technology.  And it's reference quality stuff that would make terrific demo material in your friendly neighborhood electronics store.

As long as they turn down the audio volume. Oh, there's nothing really wrong with the dts HD Master Audio presentation, and it envelopes you beautifully with the sounds of nature that surround you – from the calls of the birds to the swish of the shoals and the voices of the dolphins, etc. It's glorious!

Well, there is a problem with the narration, which is not only a tad low in volume but which is also delivered by a host for whom English is definitely not a first language, and the accent does tend to get in the way somewhat.

Where the production really goes off the rails, however, is in its embrace of the Man-caused global warming dogma that's in the process of being shown as an egregious fraud. The entire first chapter of the Blu-ray is devoted to a Nokia-sponsored propaganda fest that has nothing to do with the feature itself, and the latter part of the feature goes all environmental as well.  So if you're part of the growing number of people who don't subscribe to the pseudo-science of "climate change", you may find your intelligence insulted.

It's too bad, because there's so much to enjoy – and be in absolute awe of – in Wild Ocean.
According to the PR materials, Wild Ocean was the 2009 recipient of “Film of the Year” from the Earthwatch Institute ('nuff said!) and won an "Outstanding Achievement" award at the 2009 Jackson Hole wildlife film festival.
Special features include an interview with the directors, a behind-the-scenes feature, a quiz and "fun facts" about the area and its wildlife.

Wild Ocean, from IMAGE Entertainment
40 min. 1080p widescreen (1.78:1), dts HD Master Audio

HubbleIMAX Hubble on Blu-ray

The latest real IMAX film to hit Blu-ray is an eye-popping look at the universe in which we live, set against the background of the eye in the sky that's revealing more of it nearly every day, as well as some of the people who make that possible.

IMAX Hubble is a spectacular Blu-ray and really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can muster. This is not only because the images are larger than life and cry out for a huge screen, but because some of the images are "smaller than life" (in that they're basically small pictures within the big picture) and only occupy a portion of the home theater screen.

We watched the film on a 50 inch plasma - our 106 inch projection home theater being down for emergency maintenance - and while the plasma technology's gorgeous, rich picture really did the wondrous images justice, we pined for the wall-sized picture and will be revisiting this Blu-ray as soon as the repairs are done.

But back to the film itself. Aided by some simulations of our cosmos that are based on the images Hubble spies for us, IMAX Hubble takes us from the surface of our home planet, where we witness shuttle astronauts training for their missions to help keep Hubble's vision clear as well (as getting to watch the shuttle itself take off for orbit), to the farthest reaches of the space telescope's vision to date, a trip billions of years back in time. It's heady stuff.

The best parts are the shuttle scenes, the "pickup truck into space" in orbit above a beautiful blue planet Earth where astronauts work both inside and outside the spacecraft to upgrade Hubble before time runs out on the shuttle itself. If you've ever yearned to be in space, this film will make your heart ache even more.

And even though a lot of the supposed Hubble shots are obviously enhanced, the looks at far-off sights are spectacular. Of particular note to stargazers is the scene where we zoom outward toward the constellation Orion and, as we get closer, we notice that his belt only appears as a line of three stars from close to Earth - that as we get closer to the constellation itself it becomes obvious that this two dimensional line is no such thing at all. In fact, the three stars are in very different planes in the third dimension, so that the closer you get the more they resemble what, in fact, they really are: just three stars in the same general area of the universe that happen to look like a straight line from our particular viewing angle.

Though more than one shuttle mission is covered, at least briefly, in IMAX Hubble, the real meat is the Atlantis mission of May, 2009, when the crew raced the clock to make some needed repairs and upgrades designed to keep Hubble working even after the United States abandons the shuttle and has to hitchhike into space, relying on other nations to do what Americans  pioneered. 

The film is bittersweet in that regard, but (unlike us!), it never dwells on the U.S. walking away from one of its proudest technological achievements, turning its 44 minute running time into a celebration instead, which is fair enough.

IMAX Hubble is narrated by Leonard diCaprio, a talented actor but not a particularly wonderful narrator - we missed the likes of David Attenborough and Richard Kiley here. He certainly doesn't ruin the movie, but the producers could have chosen more wisely.

Still, IMAX Hubble is a tremendously exciting and interesting film for all those whose sense of wonder extends beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The shots are magnificent, the scope about as wide as one can imagine, and the production values are top notch.

It's also a darn fine Blu-ray disc, with a 1080p/24 widescreen picture (1.78:1 aspect ratio) that is absolutely magnificent. Detail and colors are superb. It's also available in 3D, though we reviewed the 2D version and found it more than adequate.

The audio, which is presented in dts-HD Master Audio 5.1, is also spectacular. We missed our big home theater for this aspect of the film, too, because we have twice the power down there as we do in our smaller, plasma-based theater. Still, the sound quality is as good as the video quality, and we were very pleased with the fidelity of the shuttle launches, which not only put each of the five main channels to good use but which also made the subwoofer sit up and take notice in a manner that few "regular" movies do - there's a mighty rumble  as the shuttle leaps skyward that, while undoubtedly not really close to actually being there, is outstanding nonetheless.

Extras don't abound, but you do get a "Mission Logs Webisode Gallery" featuring astronaut Mike Massimo, in which he takes us through various aspects of the mission. There's also a "Inside IMAX's Hubble 3D" featurette that almost made us wish we were watching the film in 3D. Almost.

IMAX Hubble is a Blu-ray for those with a sense of wonder, who appreciate American exceptionalism as on  display through the space program, or just those who want to sit back in their home theaters and go "Wow!"

Count us in! 


Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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