The Discovery Channel started their Discovery Atlas series of programs a few years ago and while there have been DVD and Blu-ray releases in the past, those didn't collect the entire series as this Discover Atlas - The Complete Collection does. For those unfamiliar with the series, it's a nice mix of a fairly standard travelogue combined with some human interest stories that go a long way towards enlightening us westerners to various ethnicities and cultures around the world. The series was shot over a five year period of time that took the crew pretty much completely around the world. The results are quite fascinating, and almost always visually stunning, particularly when viewed in high definition as they are on this Blu-ray release.
Here's a rundown of each episode:
South Africa A primer in South African politics explains how the country has changed over the course of its history and how this has affected the local population. We learn about the country's often times harsh climates and how the people who live there work their hardest to make decent lives for themselves. You get the feeling that they've still got a long way to go but that their determination will prevail. We meet a Zulu schoolgirl and begin to understand her relationship with her teacher before witnessing a man who works in a mine where gold is pulled out of the earth. From there we meet scientists interested in protecting the animals as well as some tribesmen bent on maintain their traditional way of life.
France - This feature takes an interesting approach by portraying French life as art. We learn of their rich tradition when it comes to culinary skills and wine, and we learn of the country's proud history. We're then exposed to ways that modern France is doing things differently as we meet a man whose job it is to find and detonate explosives expert, a chef bent on doing things his own way, man who climbs skyscrapers as an 'urban climber' and more.
Japan - The focus of this entry is how modern life and ancient Japanese traditions are both taken very seriously and with equal amounts of importance by the population of today's Japan. We meet a woman studying as an apprentice geisha, a humble gentleman who makes his living as a tuna fisherman, a traditional Japanese style tattoo artist, Ama (pearl) divers, and high tech robot designers as we learn how the old ways mix with the new ways as the country continues to evolve.
Mexico - In this segment we almost immediately get a sense of the national pride that is so important to the Mexican people and which is the backbone of their epic Independence Day celebrations held each year. We learn of the importance of religious ritual as we witness worshippers paying tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe and we meet a Luchadore named El Hombre sin Nombre before examining the country's culinary traditions and cultures.
China - The first entry begins by explaining and demonstrating how Chinese rice farmers work the land that their forefathers have worked on for centuries before them using essentially many of the same traditions and methods. This segues nicely into a trip through the rural areas of this massive country before taking us to a monastery where the traditions and disciplines of the past are still taught today. From there we explore China's increasingly competitive nature as we witness the training of a twelve year old girl being groomed to compete in the Olympic Games. It somehow makes sense then, that from there we head into the heart of Shanghai where a business mogul sets about his work as a legitimate captain of industry. We're rightfully given the impression that China is, right now, very much a country of change. The traditions of its past are still important but as it becomes a bigger and bigger player on the international market, the country is having to adjust to this and at times the populace seems at odds with itself.
Italy - Narrated by Isabella Rossalini, this entry deftly weaves six different stories together while taking us on a journey around the country. First we meet a jockey training and preparing to participate in a dangerously fast horse race, which leads into the story of a man who used to make a living as a simple fisherman who has decided to change occupations and compete as a record setting coastal diver. From there we're introduced to the Missoni's, a family entrenched in the world of high fashion design who have made quite a name for themselves. This contrasts interestingly enough with the life of a Venetian gondolier who desperately wants to keep his family in the city where he grew up and where his roots have been put down. As we learn about these very different segments of Italian life we get a feel for their different plights and pleasures - all very different but all linked culturally.
Egypt - Here we follow six very different Egyptians through their country beginning with a delivery boy in Cairo and moving on to an herbal healer who lives and works in the Sinai desert. We meet a man who has left his home to become a Christian monk in a Muslim country, before meeting some traditional conservative Egyptian women which contrasts interestingly against a modern Egyptian businesswoman who runs her own magazine. This episode does a good job of explaining the importance of the land's religious history and significance without underplaying what it's like to live in modern Egypt.
Russia - This episode explores Russian pride as we meet a country interested in embracing its own history once more since the fall of the U.S.S.R.. We take a trip through the beautiful city of St. Petersburg, follow a heard of nomadic Siberian reindeer and the men who heard them, and then journey to Lake Baikal before travelling through Russia's eastern volcanic regions. We then head to Moscow to take a look at the city's intense nightlife and culture and along the way meet carpet makers, magazine publishers and a circus performer.
India - The last entry in the Discovery Atlas rightly paints India as one of the most important emerging countries in the global economy. Home to a massive population and owning a rather substantial amount of land, we learn how far back and far reaching the country's traditions of religion and history reach. We meet a wedding planner who throws some of the biggest wedding bashes you've ever seen, a man training to become a Brahmin (essentially a Hindu priest), and then meet some inhabitants of the massive Dharavi slum in Mumbai before witnessing the famous Festival Of Lights.
Australia - This installment, narrated by Russell Crowe, gives us a quick history of how Australia came to be and quickly points out the contrast between the relative youthfulness of Australia as a country and the ancient history of its native population. This episode runs with the whole 'contrast' theme as it shows us deserts and lush, fertile farmlands near the coast. We meet a few locals including an aboriginal who is obsessed with the history of his people and tracing his ancestral roots and a lifeguard who lives his life around the ocean. Along the way we get a feel for the truly unique culture that this country-continent has spawned and how they've managed to set themselves apart from other nations socially, culturally, and economically.
Brazil - From Europe we head to South America where we get a quick rundown on the history of Brazil and how the country's unique geography has shaped its culture and its industry. We learn about its religious leanings and how those beliefs play a part in the lives of the country's population. From there we learn how the Amazon rain forest affects the country, both culturally and industrially, before heading into the thick of the Sao Paolo urban center where affluent citizens commute in helicopters and the country's economic heart beats. Along the way we meet different people from all walks of life, from carnival workers to river traders to a maid who aspires to become a professional soccer player.
More than just a collection of beautiful footage (although there is no shortage of that at all), the Discovery Atlas series does an excellent job of giving us a look at what it must be like to actually live in these countries, rather than to simply visit them. There's a heart to the series that goes a long way towards making it as enthralling as it is, and it gives the stunning photography some welcome context. The narration is always spot on, never getting so high-brow that it feels stuffy but never talking down to its audience or playing to the lowest common denominator. The series is well edited, very well put together, and just really and truly very, very interesting as it not only covers the basics that we all know about some of these countries (we know the Egyptians have pyramids, for example) but it digs deeper. By painting a portrait of the people who populate the countries covered here, we learn not just about geography and history but about society as a whole.
Discovery Atlas - The Complete Collection arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.77.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080i high definition transfer that generally looks very good. Colors are impressive right from the start with nice delineation and definition between the various hues evident throughout. Texture is very strong here, whether you're look at the leaves of a plant or the cloth used in a French man's jacket you can make out a lot of fine detail and get a feel for it all. Skin tines look nice and lifelike close up shots of people exhibit a lot to take in - every blemish, every piece of stubble, you can see it all very clearly. As strong as this presentation is, however, there are still a couple of minor problems, the most obvious being some somewhat consistent compression artifacts that pop up in the darker scenes, and a few shots here and there look just a little bit noisy. That said, these complaints are minor and generally this picture is strong and consistently impressive.
The only audio option on this release is a standard definition 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, in English - there's unfortunately no HD audio track provided. There aren't any problems with the mixes provided here, they sound fine for the most part, but compared to some of the more impressive and immersive HD audio tracks that are out there, it's hard not to be just a bit disappointed or underwhelmed here, particularly when the transfers are as good as they are. There's some nice channel separation here and there and the score always sounds tight and just bouncy enough. The levels are properly balanced and there are no problems to report with any hiss or distortion issues at all. Rear channel activity isn't as active as it could have been but you'll notice ambient noise and animals sounds scattered throughout the various entries in the collection that add a bit of atmosphere to the proceedings. English closed captioning is provided.
Aside from menu and episode/chapter selection, the only extras are four Travel Vignettes - Italy (9:02), Egypt (14:21), Russia (12:34) and Brazil (6:36).These brief segments eschew the personality pieces that the main feature has and basically just give us a really quick sort of highlight reel, showing off each country's main attractions, landmarks, and geographical features. There's nothing here that's as compelling as what's in the feature presentations, but some of the cinematography is very impressive and does a great job of capturing the incredibly photogenic landscapes.
There's a lot to take in here and this set is a hefty investment in terms of time but it's all absolutely worth it. The content is as fascinating and enlightening as it is beautiful and while the audio isn't going to wow you, at least the transfers in this collection often will. Anyone interested in world history, geography or the study of other cultures will find much to love about this set, making the Discovery Atlas - The Complete Collection highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.