The revamped classic shows the beauty of science
Loves: The idea of science, gorgeous nature photography
Likes: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Dislikes: Feelings of insignificance and mortality brought on by learning about the universe
Hates: How unscientific my mind is, anti-science politics and philosophy
Despite society being more plugged-in and digital than ever before, ever since the presidency of George W. Bush, it's hard to not think that the conservative elements of America have an anti-intellectual bent, going against established scientific research at every turn. If ever there was a time when science needed a boost in the public's eyes, it's now, which makes a show like Cosmos, airing on one of the Big four networks, such a wonderful gift. Though I was too young to appreciate Carl Sagan's original Cosmos series, there was a generation of science-minded people influenced by it, and hopefully this new series will have the same influence.
Shepherded by Seth MacFarlane and hosted by astrophysicist (and Sagan acolyte) Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an update on Sagan's show, touching on most of the same topics, including the origins of the universe, the history of scientific discovery and exploration, a number of scientific phenomena (including light, electricity and shifting land masses) and man's impact on the planet. 34 years later, that last part has taken on an increased importance, as the show explores the dangers that face humanity as a result of our pollution and abuse of resources. Unfortunately, these elements focusing on climate change, along with the stories about how, over millennia, science has had to overcome the power of religion and simple-minded fear, not to mention the inclusion of the secular origins of the universe, are likely to keep the show's knowledge away from people who could most use its insight.
While the series wouldn't really work without Tyson, the gorgeous nature footage and space animations are the true eye candy that power this show. You don't have to appreciate a moment of the history or information the show smoothly introduces and explains to enjoy the sumptuous visuals, including swirling nebula, cataclysmic explosions and Earthly wonders. The original series' concept of the Ship of the Imagination, the vessel that would allow Sagan, and now Tyson, to travel throughout time and space to observe the Universe, got a revamp along with the rest of the show, and the result is a sleek, beautiful vehicle that serves as home base and, as a benefit, helps sell the true scale of the concepts the show covers. It's just one of over a thousand effects shots created for the series, making it one of the most impressive feasts for the eyes ever.
Aside from his interest in science, MacFarlane's involvement makes more sense when you consider how the series updated the original's historical segments, which explore notable scientists and moments in scientific advancement. Instead of again going down the period costume drama route, the show drew on MacFarlane's primary artform: animation. Utilizing a unique style that blends photorealistic backgrounds and stylized, more graphic character art, these bits effectively tell the stories of the heroes of science, and lend added drama to the proceedings, aided by an impressive cast of voice actors that includes Patrick Stewart, Richard Gere, Kirsten Dunst and a mostly unrecognizable MacFarlane. Interestingly, my 8-year-old watched in rapt attention when the show focused on the science, but these story-based animated segments made her lose interest. Maybe when she's older she'll learn to appreciate cartoons.
The series' DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are just what was needed to fully immerse oneself in the show's impressive audio mix, with wonderful sound effects and a tremendous score by Alan Silvestri (full of his signature touches that make the whole experience feel so monumental.) The surrounds get plenty of work from the music and the cosmic atmospherics that are omnipresent, while the center channel delivers Tyson's baritone (along with Sagan's archival voice and the other voice actors) crisply. The low-end also does its part to deliver the punch you'd expect from a show built around the Big Bang. It's just a beautiful presentation that makes you want to crank up your system.
Though Tyson, MacFarlane and Pope weren't on hand for the commentary, they, along with many other of the show's creative participants, are heard from in "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - The Voyage Continues", a slickly-produced 41:20 featurette that breaks the series down, examining all the parts, including location shooting, visual effects, animation and the score. Through interviews and behind-the-scene footage, this piece paints an excellent overview of what the show is and how it was made.
There's more from the core trio of Druyan, Tyson and MacFarlane in "Celebrating Carl Sagan: A Selection from the Library of Congress Dedication" (34:37). On the occasion of Sagan's materials and letters being entered into the Library of Congress (aided financially by MacFarlane), the three spoke of science and Sagan for an audience. Here, Druyan shares memories of her late husband and Tyson, at his most charming, shares the story of his connection to Sagan and the man's impact. MacFarlane, who never got to meet Sagan, but felt his influence, is his usual jokey self, but he also points out the dangers of our society's "science regression" and decries the politicization of science and how the media pays attention to fringe anti-science forces. All three are well worth a listen.
There's more discussion of the show in "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey at Comic-Con 2013" (40:03). After some footage of Tyson in and around Comic-con, we get to check out an epic sizzle reel for the show, and a video introduction from MacFarlane, before Druyan, Tyson and Braga sit down for a panel moderated by British media personality Jonathan Ross. The discussion in intriguing, and the Q&A period with the audience results in some fantastic responses from Tyson, who is on his A-game. There's also a brief, special appearance by a certain science guy.
The Interactive Cosmic Calendar, a big element of the series, is available to check out as its own extra. With the history of the universe, up until this point, compressed into the space of 12 months (for easier understanding) you can navigate through 15 milestones, with text descriptions that are also read by Druyan and access to related clips from the show. As a tool for comprehension, it's neat and well-designed (aside from the text being a bit too small to read from across the room) but it's not an item that will inspire repeat access.
Also included with the set are a couple of Fox trailers.
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