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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Lost Gods
The Lost Gods
Smithsonian Networks // Unrated // January 13, 2009
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted January 24, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
The march toward monotheism seems of course a fait accompli to those of us coming into that belief several thousand years after it took hold of several religions and societies, notably the Jews and their brethren, the Christians. The Lost Gods, a sort of perplexing DVD release from Smithsonian in association with Infinity Entertainment Group (more about this in a moment), delves into five other cultures to explore a sometimes bewildering array of deities these peoples worshipped. While the title of the DVD, and the series from which it is culled, is somewhat misleading (the series focuses as much on sociopolitical history as it does on any particular religious content), it nonetheless provides a consistently interesting look into how various peoples interacted with the Divine, although (despite the title) that is certainly not the sole focus of the series.



So why is this release somewhat perplexing? Unlike just about every other Smithsonian DVD I've reviewed, this release does not consist of a single topic, one-off documentary. It's actually a bit confusing if you don't know the show's history, but the DVD includes an original five part series hosted by Christy Kenneally, which covers Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Incas and the Celts. What makes the DVD a little confusing is that it also includes a reedited hour-plus version, sans Kenneally, that features recut versions of four of the five episodes (the Incas aren't included for some reason). What makes this a bit of a head-scratcher is the completely unclear main menu, which has a primary option to "Play Movie" (i.e., the reedited version), and then after "Scene Selections" (which goes to various chapter stops in that reedited version), "Play Episodes," which accesses the original version of the series.



If you stick with the original Kenneally versions, you'll get an insightful look at how religion, society and politics were all completely interwoven in these ancient cultures (as if they're not now, of course). The series has an inventive visual presentation, with beautiful location shots and Kenneally's engaging narration in his lilting brogue. The segues in each episode (as well as the reedited version) are particularly compelling, with a very cool "greenscreening" of visual information so that, for example, pillars in the Parthenon become "portals" to the next scene coming up. It may seem like a minor thing, but it points out the pains that were taken to keep the series as entertaining for the eye as it is for the mind.



The series is indeed more of a natural history of each culture being investigated, not a religious inquiry, per se, though of course religious information is imparted. The series however is frequently best when Kenneally is imparting simple facts that might fall by the wayside in a purely religious undertaking, as when in the Romans episode he describes Plato's efforts making the Greek intellectual focus shift from the Gods to the Good. Other completely non-religious information is just as compelling, as in the Incas episode where Kenneally shows some of the legendary Incan rockwork, including a wall they built that was one of the few structures that survived a devastating 16th century earthquake that leveled more "modern" buildings, or in his very cool revelation that ancient Incan cities were always built in the form of a totemic animal (Cusco for example is in the form of a Puma).



While the original versions are brief to begin with (running times of around 25 minutes each), Kenneally's firm guiding hand keeps the topics cogent and well organized. That unfortunately isn't always the case with the reedited version, which utilizes a lot of the same footage in different order with an American narrator (no on screen host is seen as in the Kenneally version), to somewhat lesser impact. There's simply too much information to be crammed into this brief running time and the result is sort of a hodgepodge. It's not horrible, but you'll certainly do better to stick with the original Kenneally version.



Smithsonian is stepping up to the plate nicely with its relatively new broadcast division, and this release (though not originally produced for or by Smithsonian) shows the network at its best--visually sweeping, well scripted documentaries providing a nice generalist overview of a given subject. The Lost Gods may be more than a bit misleading, title-wise, but it will provide some excellent information for anyone interested in any or all of these varied cultures.








The DVD


Video:
Though this release bears the imprimatur of Smithsonian HD, like its History Channel kin, this release is stupidly (STUPIDLY!) in an unenhanced 1.78:1 ratio. If you leave it letter- and pillarboxed, you'll get a reasonably sharp, and frequently breathtaking due to the various locales, image with excellent color, contrast and detail. If you choose to use your zoom feature to get the image to fill your widescreen television, you'll notice (as is always the case in these instances) a bit of softness in the image due to its having been blown up. This is overall a very crisp looking series, however, and has an inventive visual presentation to boot.




Sound:
Both a DD 5.1 and DD 2.0 mix are available, but truth be told I was hard-pressed to hear any major difference between them. In fact one of the few times I heard good use of surround channels was in the one putative "extra," a trailer of sorts for other Smithsonian series, when a herd of stampeding cattle suddenly filled the surround channels. All of that said, the series has excellent fidelity, and Kenneally, though very occasionally a bit hard to decipher due to his heavy accent, is at least always easy to hear. Ambient noises are minimal, but the underscore is unobtrusive and supports the proceedings nicely. English subtitles are available.





Extras:
Just the aforementioned promo reel for other Smithsonian series is included, and sorry, I don't count that as a real "extra."




Final Thoughts:
Don't let the title fool you. While The Lost Gods does at least touch on man's quest to define his place in the universe and how various divine forces come into play in that regard, this is really an excellent, if brief, overview of five disparate cultures. Host Christy Kenneally is a very appealing presence, and good information is imparted in a visually engaging format. Recommended.


____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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