Blu-ray Review: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

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Having wrapped up on June 8, 2014 with the broadcast of its final episode, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has received a very quick home video turnaround. The four-disc Blu-ray set offers all 13 episodes plus a modest array of bonus features. Earnestly hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos updates the 1980 Carl Sagan series of the same name that originally aired on PBS. It’s a thought-provoking, visually-inventive exploration of science that has great potential to inspire viewers of all ages to learn more about the world around them and the vastness of what lies beyond.

Depending on an individual’s grasp of natural scientific theory and history, much of Cosmos may not be particularly revelatory. They don’t shy away from covering the fundamentals. Each episode is structured as a mini-lesson, mixing biographical sketches of pioneering scientists, historical milestones, basic theory, and often speculations about discoveries yet to be made. Apparently an idea contributed by co-producer Seth MacFarlane, animated sequences replace the live-action, period-based dramatizations of Sagan’s version. These segments work fairly well, but they may appeal primarily to younger viewers more than other aspects of Cosmos. Top-shelf visual effects combine with a stirring Alan Silvestri score to achieve a semi-cinematic viewing experience.

Cosmos 3 (380x253).jpgThe central storytelling conceit is to present the entire history of the Universe as a one-year “cosmic calendar.” This helps put billions of years in a manageable context, beginning with the Big Bang on January 1 and ending with the appearance of humans in the final seconds of December 31. The calendar is presented as an interactive experience, with numerous significant dates accessible, in the special features (a Blu-ray exclusive, though not quite as neat—or extensive—as one might expect, and co-producer and co-director Anny Druyan’s narration is a bit over-dramatic). Whether discussing the farthest reaches of the Universe, the extinction of the dinosaurs, or micro-organisms (such as the astounding extremophiles called tardigrades), the organization comes across a bit haphazard at times. However, this approach allows for any given episode to function more or less as a standalone experience.

Seeing as he is a near-constant presence, whether onscreen or via voiceover narration, the more you like Neil deGrasse Tyson the more you’ll enjoy Cosmos. I find him to be an agreeable, if occasionally bland, presenter. Considering he’s a real astrophysicist and not an actor, he’s a surprisingly charismatic figure but he does oversell his delivery a bit (not nearly as much as Druyan does in the “cosmic calendar” bonus, thankfully). When we see Tyson at Comic-Con 2013 (included in the special features), he’s far more laidback, natural, and even funny. Cosmos might’ve been even better had it loosened up a bit and utilized some his wit. Then again, that might’ve dulled the intellectual seriousness of the program, especially in terms of its usefulness as an inspirational teaching tool for children.

cosmos 1 (380x214).jpgIt must be noted that Cosmos has sparked some rather predictable controversy among climate change-deniers and also the most ardently faith-based viewers. This is a science-based program, however, and Tyson reminds us that nothing is necessarily true simply be we feel like believing it. The evidence that has been nearly unanimously accepted within the scientific community to support climate change is presented here. It’s not served up as political propaganda, but as a realistic examination of the human impact on global climate (like it or not). And no, there is no pseudoscience such as so-called “creationism” or “intelligent design” anywhere to be found. If any of that is a deal-breaker for you, preventing you from exploring the information and imagination presented throughout, that’s a serious shame.

With a top-notch 1080p high definition transfer, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey looks tremendously strong on Blu-ray. Seeing as it is a documentary, there are some older clips (notably from the original Cosmos) and file footage that are less impressive than the brand new material. But that aside, the CG effects and animation looks startlingly sharp. The various elements come together terrifically for a viewing experience that rivals modern big budget films. The same goes for the dramatically effective DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix, which offers an enveloping sonic environment that only enhances the series overall. It’s a detail-oriented soundtrack that greatly contributes to Cosmos being anything but a dry documentary.

Cosmos 2 (380x214).jpgSpecial features here are not terribly extensive but there are some nice pieces. In addition to the aforementioned “Interactive Cosmic Calendar” and Comic-Con panel, there is an audio commentary for the first episode (Seth MacFarlane is not among the participants, neither are Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brannon Braga). The 40-minute “The Voyage Continues” is a nice behind-the-scenes piece. Both it and the 35-minute “Celebrating Carl Sagan: A Selection from the Library of Congress Dedication” feature the participation of MacFarlane.

Only so much can be covered in a 13-episode TV series, but Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey does a great job of offering a fascinating point of entry for those who want to enrich their knowledge.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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