Yet another entry in "History's" new value priced line of DVDs aimed at educators, "Instant Expert: A Quick Guide to Egypt," is yet another repackaging of a previously released documentary, specifically, "Egypt: Engineering an Empire," one of 14 episodes in the "Engineering an Empire" series. Fortunately, this program is more along the lines of what "History" should be putting out; it's full of fact and insight into the ancient civilization. However, the major issue I have to take with this release is the idea of selling one episode of a series to educators under a new title. The complete series can be purchased for around three time the price of this disc and is definitely something a history teacher would want to consider as it covers 13 other cultures in just as solid detail.
Marketing issues aside, the program hits the ground running, beginning at the birth of the Egyptian empire and showing the foundation (no pun intended) for future engineering marvels like the Pyramids of Giza. Basic innovations such as dams are covered and the geography of the area is discussed as well. Additionally, political and cultural background is provided, allowing viewers to get a larger picture of what was pushing the Egyptians forward. It's fascinating, engaging, and free of baseless conjecture. Scholars in various areas of Egyptian culture are brought into discuss all these issues and their contributions are kept short and sweet, instead using a narrator to summarize complex issues succinctly. The program is also brilliantly hosted by Peter Weller.
Weller isn't just a professional Hollywood figure brought in for kicks. In looking up information regarding the background of the "Engineering an Empire" series I discovered Weller, most known for his role as Robocop, recently completed graduate work in Roman and Renaissance art, and is currently working on a Ph.D while teaching history courses at Syracuse University. Weller's legitimate understanding of the topics at hand combined with his unique voice and screen presence makes for a very natural host. Unfortunately, the show uses a stock narrator more than it uses Weller in the field.
The program's 92 minutes go by quickly and I walked away feeling full of newfound knowledge of Egypt. For instance, fans of "The Mummy" films might find it interesting that the film's villain, Imhotep takes his name from an ancient engineer and flat out genius, who designed the first Egyptian pyramid for Djoser, the pharaoh of the time. The pyramid was more akin to the pyramids of Mexico than the classic, pure tetrahedral designs people generally think of as being Egyptian. It's no surprise such a brilliant mind was used as inspiration for a brilliant villain. Don't assume though, you'll walk away an expert on Egypt as the title would lead you to believe. The knowledge is dense, but in actuality the program often focuses son single events in the history of the country and provides anecdotes that illuminate the mindset of the civilization at that point in history, including some dirty graffiti on the wall! Maybe they were on to something in "Bubba Ho-Tep."
"Instant Expert: A Guide to Egypt" is a very worthwhile program for a wide variety of audiences. Kids and adults alike should be able to enjoy and take away something from the show. It does a great job of keeping viewers engaged with standard interviews, on-location scenes, dramatic recreations, and computer-generated imagery, which really helps illustrate the building aspects from the ground up. It's not gimmicky in any way, shape, or form; it educates while still entertaining. My only major complaint is the shady marketing practice of a still, in-print title as something new, shame on "History" in that regard.
The 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer is merely average. A medium level of detail is plagued with some inconsistent color levels during on-location shots, with reds feeling cranked up and the image having a way too warm feel. CGI sequences and dramatizations fare much better with no artifacting or edge-enhancement, but aliasing does become an issue at times and some source material looks interlaced.
The English 2.0 audio track features a rich supporting score and well-balanced narration free of distortion. For a pure documentary, this audio track is more than sufficient.
A text based educators supplement is included as well as a 10-question review quiz on the disc itself.
A great episode from a great series, "Instant Expert: A Quick Guide to Egypt" is an invaluable resource for educators and those with an interest in Egypt. The latter category may want to consider purchasing this disc, but the main target audience is better off tracking down the complete "Engineering an Empire" series, it's a much greater value and sends "History" the message that deceptive marketing is not appreciated. I hate to do it to such a fine program, but Rent It.