Narrated by Hugh Quarshie, this three part series originally debuted on the Animal Planet channel but like most BBC Nature productions, it's now found its way onto Blu-ray for your enjoyment. The central idea here is to showcase what makes Africa's The Great Rift unique in a few different ways. As the three hour long featurettes play out, we learn about the topography, geography, geology and biology that all play a huge part in making this massive part of Africa so interesting.
The three parts that make up the whole of The Great Rift are:
Fire: The first episode begins by showing us the feeding habits of some wolves that live on the plains and try to feed off of mole rats who tunnel underground to escape the predators. This leads into a segment that explains how the creatures that live in the area have adapted to the unique geography of the area and how the Great Rift shapes and defines tens of thousands of miles of the landscape in Africa. Gorgeous aerial shots take us along the rift valley and then up to the mountain peaks while the travelogue footage showcases different plant and animal life in the area. With the setup out of the way, we launch into a look at the different volcanic activity that has played such a huge role in shaping this area and learn how a long chain of volcanoes peppers the area. Seasonal changes play an effect on life in the area, but the volcanoes carry on, changing the landscape and the lives of the animals and people who call this part of the area home.
Water: In a very dry part of the world, water is obviously a very important part of sustaining life. In this installment we learn about the importance of rainfall in the area, how the mountainous areas have to frequently deal with perpetually bad weather while other areas go dry. Obviously the rain allows food and vegetation to grow, which in turns spawns animal life. Proximity to different bodies of water is a key factor in the patterns of migrating herds of elephants and also a core factor of what makes hippos decide to live where they live. A trip to the ocean shore takes us underwater where we meet some unique examples of sea life in the area, before we see how rain fosters insect life in different parts of the country. We also learn how man has learned to use water to his advantage in the region, for fishing and transportation.
Grass: The third and final entry in the series exemplifies how animals and their habits tend to revolve around the search for food and how in many cases that food comes in the form of grass and other forms of vegetation. With open grass, however, comes vulnerability to predators and other problems. From there we learn about the different species that populate the plains, how the plains have changed over the years and how lava has shaped the landscape from jungle to open plains. Volcanic ash would go on to play a large role in shaping this area and affecting the growth that occurred there over the years, while animals such as giraffes and elephants have evolved in such a way as to idealize their habits to fit the area. Predators, of course, are plentiful, as the open landscape makes vegetarian grazers easy prey for lions but life remains a constant in the area as the rain cycles replenish the water in the area that the fauna needs for growth.
All in all, the BBC Nature team have once again done a pretty impressive job documenting a unique part of the world and the plant and animal life that populates it (with some focus on the human population as well, though that definitely comes secondary). The narration is serious enough that you'll probably learn something from it but not so stuffy that it's a chore to listen to, while the cinematography is, more often than not, top notch and frequently quite stunning. If you've seen more than one BBC Nature documentary you'll have a good idea of what to expect, and it's a delight to report that The Great Rift continues that tradition of excellence in edutainment.
The Great Rift arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p high definition VC-1 encoded transfer that is generally quite good. There are shots in this set that will blow you away with crystal clear clarity and a remarkable amount of fine detail and then there are shots that look soft a don't impress quite as much. Color reproduction is quite strong, with the blues of the open sky dominating almost every scene and rightfully so as they look quite beautiful and provide a great contrast to the open plains. Some minor authoring quirks show up here and there - you'll notice some moderate compression artifacts if you look for them as well as a little bit of trailing now and again - and there are a few spots where edge enhancement is obvious. Detail varies from shot to shot, and most of them look quite impressive. It's not a completely problem free transfer, but the image quality on this release is definitely quite good.
The only audio option on this release is an 48 kHz 1.5 Mbps English language 2 channel DTS track that comes with subtitles available in English only. While a lossless surround track would certainly have been more than welcome, the quality of this stereo track is quite good. The ocean sounds, the animal noises, the score and of course David Attenborough's narration are all nice and clear and there are no problems whatsoever with any hiss, distortion, or level fluctuation. It would have been nice to hear all of this by way of an HD audio option, but that didn't happen.
There are actually a trio of extras included here, but you wouldn't know it based off of the main menu screen, you have to select each episode individually and sift through the chapter settings. When you do that, after the last chapter of each episode you'll find a 'making of' featurette that shows what the cast and crew went through to get the footage that they did for this series. Watch out for bats and baboons!
The extras are slim and the audio isn't reference quality but the transfer is solid and the content is pretty impressive. The camerawork is top notch and the content both educational and interesting and if this isn't the most robust package that BBC Nature has ever put out, it's still a pretty good one and it comes 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.