The Discovery Channel is no slouch when it comes to giving sofa bound explorers a glimpse at the world. Ever since the television channel began broadcasting there has almost always been some program on that sought to educate viewers and illuminate corners of the globe that they'll never get the chance to see with their own eyes. The latest example of that is Discover: Atlas.
Atlas premiered in 2006 and it has collected eleven episodes depicting places and people from around the world. The show's production took over five years and was handled entirely in high definition, meaning the content is robust and the quality of the film is very sharp. While many of Atlas's episodes have been available in the past, Discovery has released a complete collection just in time for the holiday shopping season. The Blu-ray version has been reviewed here for those interested in the HD release of the series.
In case you're unfamiliar with what Atlas is all about, it's basically a documentary series about the inhabitants who live in other countries. In each episode we're given a glimpse at the culture, religion, and daily lives of several people residing in these parts of the world. In some of these episodes there's a bit of nature involved, and in others there's a little history, but throughout each there are many common threads. Viewers can expect to be introduced to some interesting people and see directions their country could be headed in the future. Needless to say there's a lot of information to cram into the runtime for each episode, but Atlas handles the pacing well, even though the contest is brisk at times.
The standard definition release of Discovery: Atlas the Complete Collection presents all eleven episodes on three DVDs. The episodes are presented in no particular order, but there didn't really need to be. With a documentary series such as this there's no necessity for continuity since each episode stands alone.
The first disc in this set features the episodes "South Africa", "France", "Japan", and "Mexico". "South Africa", narrated by Andre Braugher, is a fine way to start off watching this show and this episode in particular stood out amongst all the others. There's so much going on in South Africa from a new democracy to recurring hostilities, yet there are still people getting by day to day in their own way. The most fascinating case study here was the story of a man who works in the world's largest gold mine trying to save up enough money to buy his house. Candice Bergen narrates the episode about France, which talks about how the country is trendsetting and changing things in the world. Edward James Olmos talks about Mexico's heritage and people, and Masi Oka takes us through Japan's seasons and how they relate to the people who live there.
The second disc features "Egypt", "Russia", and "India". Of these three I thought the Egypt episode (narrated by Omar Metwally) was the most fascinating. This one followed some people who live in and above ancient tombs and takes polarizing sides on the lives of women. There's a balanced look at the life of a woman who heads up Egypt's foremost fashion magazine, and that of a woman who lives in the town of Siwa and cannot show any of her body in public. "Russia" (narration by Tatyana Yassukovich) offers a much wider focus than many of the other episodes in Atlas. There are many people who are followed and a great deal of discussion about Russia's history post USSR. "India" (narrated by Mira Nair) looks at the diverse wealth structure in the country with an opulent wedding planner and families in the slums taking center stage.
And finally, disc three holds "Australia", "Brazil", "China", and "Italy". The narrators for these episodes are (in order) Russell Crowe, Sela Ward, James Spader, and Isabella Rossellini. Of these four episodes I found "Australia" and "China" to be the most engrossing and diverse in terms of content. "Italy" and "Brazil" were pretty solid as well and offered up some interesting cultural perspectives and historical information.
While some of the episodes in Discovery: Atlas were better than others, I must say that the quality of this series overall was astounding. The focus on the cultural, religious, and historical aspects of each of these countries from around the world had a nice deeply personal touch as well. Though each person that's featured here only gets a few moments in the spotlight, you will be interested in their stories and the documentary feels engrossing because of this. Any collector who enjoys watching documentaries will absolutely eat this series up. Highly Recommended!
Discovery: Atlas is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. While the standard definition version of this show may lack the high resolution punch packed by its Blu-ray counterpart, it's certainly no slouch in the presentation department. From a crisp, clean image to a color palette that absolutely pops from the screen, this show looks incredible all around. The picture is sharp, the details are impressive, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better looking documentary series on DVD. There are still some elements of grain and a few points where compression artifacts make an appearance, but these are few and far between and aren't too distracting.
Presented with English 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mixes, Discovery: Atlas essentially has all its bases covered. Then again, considering this is a documentary series there isn't much need for the rear channels and it's clear that they were something of an afterthought. Some light ambient noise and sound effects make their way into the experience and there's a little directionality to the audio, but it's hardly anything to write home about. Overall this is a good sounding DVD release, even if it's not going to push your system to the limit.
Discovery Channel has included some bonus features on this release as well, which was a pleasant surprise. There are "Regional Vignettes" videos, which are basically additional snippets of information and landmarks about "Italy", "Egypt", "Russia", and "Brazil". The episodes themselves are far better, but the inclusion of these supplemental clips is certainly appreciated.
Discovery: Atlas Complete Collection is an absolutely stellar release that should appear on any documentary fan's holiday wishlist. The quality of the eleven episodes is outstanding and the focus is what makes each so unique. Rather than just throw information about a particular country your way and show clips of the landscape and wildlife Atlas takes a nice personal look at the inhabitants of each place. The focus is wide-ranging and diverse, and you'll never see the same thing covered in another episode. There's a story to each episode, the narration is top notch, and the production values are equally splendid. I truly hope Discovery continues the Atlas series, but for now this set looks to be all there is to it. Highly Recommended!