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Planet Earth: Special Edition
If you're unfamiliar with the series at this point, then I sincerely have to wonder what planet you've been living on for the last five years or so, because it garnered quite a bit of attention during your absence. With occasional replays on television that are practically advertised as events, the numerous awards it's won (Emmy's, Peabody, etc), and even feature films... you may be wondering exactly where you've been yourself. Simply put, this is an 11 episode documentary that covers every biome and habitat on our planet imaginable. The topics that culminate the series are:
-From Pole to Pole
Of course, Planet Earth isn't the first series to cover exotic life in wild locales across the globe, but make no mistake about it - This is a groundbreaking series. Thanks to virtually every science class in existence, our memories are haunted by dry-runs of textbook information over a montage of wildlife footage, but something started to happen as soon as Attenborough's Life series premiered (not to be confused with 2009's Life series) - Listening to the facts no longer seemed like a chore, and thanks to photography that actually had some care put into it, the beauty of nature and wildlife was coming alive on the screen like never before. Eventually, The Blue Planet, a previous effort from the same production team as Planet Earth, changed the rules yet again by showing the world sights never before possible with older technology, and made the modern documentary effectively capture the epic majesty of life in a specific habitat we still, in the grand scheme of things, know very little about.
The next step was obviously to expand the scope of that epic scale, and what's more epic than our planet as a whole? As you can see from the topics listed above, this series covers it all and has earned the right to be considered the reference point for documentary filmmaking from here on out. The photography is consistently stunning, often making the viewer wonder how such shots are possible while sitting in awe of what they're seeing, but for this reviewer's money, it's the narrator that sells the whole package. David Attenborough is well known for his work on natural history programs over the last 50 years or so, and if you've only been familiar with the serviceable but lacking commentaries provided by the Discovery Channel and whatever celebrity of the hour they've chosen, this release will make you understand why so many people on the web clamor for the original BBC version of this series and nothing less. When Attenborough presents us with the necessary information, he's precise and professional, but there's more of a natural flow and even a sense of enjoyment in his delivery. He has a great amount of love and respect for the topics he covers, and doesn't sound like he's merely reading a script. You can get the most talented actor or actress behind a microphone and have them give it their all, but there's simply no substitution for a man whose very life has been about everything contained within these 11 episodes. Attenborough is connected, and having his narration the chosen preference for this release in the US is, frankly, the way it should have been all along (sorry, Sigourney).
The only thing about Planet Earth that rubs me the wrong way is its underlying message that much of the beauty that's captured on film here is in great danger of going away. You know, the whole 'we're destroying our planet' bit. This is not a large overtone throughout the series by any means, but the message does reach out for us right out of the gate and it reappears occasionally as part of the closing dialogue. I try to be environmentally conscious - I don't really go out of my way to pick up litter or trash that isn't mine or anything, but any time I have the option to throw something in the garbage or recycle, I do my part. I would have rather this series captured each of these environments without its 'save the planet' message, because for me, it's ironically a pollutant to my overall enjoyment. There are times I catch myself in the 'too bad this is all slowly going away' mindset, when all I really want to do is think about how truly amazing everything is on-screen and nothing else. I can't fault the series too much for sliding this message in, because after all, the pollution of our planet and how it's affecting these habitats is very relevant to the broad subject matter at hand. Overall though, this is a very minor complaint of mine in the grand scheme of things.
There's not much more that can be said about Planet Earth, as it's truly something you'll have to see to believe. You're just going to have to trust me when I say that you'll have an experience that no prior documentary has been able to provide - An experience that evokes your emotions as much as your mind. You'll feel delight, wonder, warmth, fear, and even sadness will permeate the most hardened individual, because what Planet Life does perhaps best of all, is make us realize just how precious any given life can be. An animal doesn't appear to be 'just an animal' as you're watching, and as beautiful as nature can be, it can also be very cruel. Animals are chased, animals are attacked, animals die, and animals get eaten... and we see what it's like to watch living creatures scramble for their lives until fatigue sets in and their motor gives out. The faint of heart will have a rough time with these sequences, but they're far between enough that they shouldn't ruin your overall experience with Planet Earth. But even if they do... hey, that's life.
Here's the facts - The 2007 release had a 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer (1.78:1), whereas this new encode is presented in 1080i via the superior AVC codec (also 1.78:1).
Hearing that this double-dip offering is 1080i as opposed to 1080p is going to enrage a lot of people at first, but it's not the doom and gloom situation that many people are going to make it out to be. You see, Planet Earth was mastered at 1080i/50Hz at 25 fps, but standards used in the United States don't adhere to this format so some sort of conversion had to be done. In the case of the 2007 release, the frames were slowed to 24 fps to accommodate US standards, and the 1080p encode was born. In an effort to, I assume, represent the source as accurately as possible, the 1080i/50Hz source was given a more 'direct' encode to 1080i/60Hz this time around, which the US can also handle. What does this mean for you and the picture quality of this release? Basically, the deinterlacing is going to be done by your player or your television, but despite the quality of interlacing being source dependent, it really doesn't matter that much. You'd be hard pressed to see a real difference no matter what player you're running this on.
The real question is - Which release looks better? That's hard to discern, too. I've heard reports that this easily bests the Discovery Channel version in the US that featured Sigourney Weaver, but as far as the 1080p BBC version which I own and have been able to do comparisons with, it's really a wash. The image this time around is ever so slightly softer than it was on the previous release, but you really have to be looking in order to tell. Just by popping this into your Blu-ray player and starting an episode, you're not going to think it looks soft unless you're looking for a reason for it to. Minor banding and compression artifacting is still present, and although each release has a grain structure that looks different from one another, I wouldn't say one looks better than the other in this respect.
Everything is as spot on as the photography has allowed, and considering the photography was impressive in everything but the darkest areas, that's saying a lot. There are times where you literally feel like you're right in the thick of things, and I'm not just saying that. Some shots have such an incredible amount of depth and detail, it feels like I'm watching this in 3D. So, needless to say, everything is spot on - From the color, to the contrast and black levels, lifelike sharpness, everything. The only complaint I have is that such as with the previous release, the grain structure can look digitized at times. This really isn't that intrusive an issue however.
All in all, this transfer of Planet Earth shows its age a little, especially since the more recent Life series out performs it, but this is still one of the most gorgeous video presentations anyone should have in their collection to show off their home theater. If you don't already own Planet Earth, you're definitely safe buying this version over the other release as the difference is fairly negligible. If you already own the prior release and your big reason for wanting to upgrade was in the video department, you may as well hold on to what you have.
What is most definitely an upgrade over the previous release is the audio. In 2007, Planet Earth was given a measly lossy Dolby Digital track. This time? Well, it's still presented in lossy audio, but the 5.1 DTS-HD High Resolution track most certainly fares better. This is a documentary, so the most dominant aspect of the track is Attenborough's narration. Although it didn't sound bad before, his tone sounds more natural than ever. Occasionally, nature sounds are able to shine across the front channels quite heavily, and even through the rears at time. They, too, sound more realistic than they have in the past. There's no appreciable bump in the LFE, and the dynamic range isn't drastically changed as a result of this new encode either. This is clearly superior to the previous release, but probably not by as large of a margin as some would have hoped.
With the video being virtually a wash and the audio sounding as good as it's ever going to, the real reason for anyone to upgrade from the previous US BBC release is the extras. Unfortunately, the previous release left us high and dry, and that's been rectified with Planet Earth's Special Edition in a big way.
-Producer Commentary - 5 of the 11 episodes now have commentary tracks accompanying them - Pole to Pole, Mountains, Caves, Great Plains, and Shallow Seas. For the most part, the commentaries, which are each handled by a different person who was involved with Planet Earth, are very informative and really shed a lot of light on what it was like to be on location for the filming. Despite the fact all 5 of these commentaries are quite informative, they're not all created equally. A couple of producers seem like they're having fun sharing their professional and personal accounts of undertaking their particular episode, a couple are very to the point with their information and come off somewhat dry, and last but not least, the final commentary features a Producer that's seemingly unprepared to give his account in an organized fashion. All in all, these are well worth the listen if you're interested in how such a program gets made. There's so much we tend to take for granted when watching this footage from the comfort of our couch, so it's astonishing to hear some of the stuff that had to go on behind-the-scenes.
Music Only Viewing Option - Although David Attenborough's narration is key, a lot of effort went into providing the series with a score that matched the epic imagery we were seeing at any given moment. If you want to just sit back and enjoy the beautiful imagery for a relaxing night in, you can view any episode with a Dolby Digital stereo musical score. I remember one time while I was watching Life after it was released on Blu, and for some reason, my Blu-ray player dropped the narration... and I just went with it. It was a great experience for me then, and I think it's fantastic that this option was included on this release.
-Planet Earth Diaries - Each episode at its core is 50 minutes in length, but the Planet Earth Diaries adds an additional 10 minutes or so to each episode, detailing what it was like to be on location to get some of the most beautiful imagery ever captured on film.
-Great Planet Earth Moments - Although this seems like it would be nothing more than a video montage of the most stunning imagery that appeared throughout all 11 episodes, you'd be surprised to know this is actually much, much more than a mere visual recap. David Attenborough narrates this in-depth look at the most fascinating-to-shoot moments that appeared on the show, and numerous interviews with various crew members fill in the rest of the blanks. Complementing the Planet Earth Diaries well, this is a feature not to be missed.
-The Future - Featuring three one-hour episodes, Saving Species, Into the Wilderness, and Living Together, The Future focuses on the one aspect Planet Earth (thankfully) only began to explore - Saving our planet. Despite the fact the introduction of this 'green' message left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth during Planet Earth's initial run, I have to admit that these episodes aren't the turn-off I thought they would be. Instead of merely reading off facts in a stern tone to make us feel bad for burning holes in the ozone, this supplement to Planet Earth is able to present all of its information matter-of-factly, which includes traveling to various regions and interviewing conservationists in their local habitats, without pointing a finger at us directly to dredge up feelings of guilt. Most programming I've ever seen that has a green message pushing things along is smarmy and holier than thou, but much like the 11 episodes of Planet Earth, the Future documentaries reinvent the way information is utilized to grab hold of its audience. I didn't go into these expecting much, so I can't believe I'm actually saying this but, these are a must for anyone who's a fan of Planet Earth.
Additional Documentaries - Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth / Secrets of the Maya Underworld / Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert - The snow leopard doc will be familiar to anyone who imported the UK BBC edition, as it was included as an extra on that set. Other than that, all three of these docs should be fresh material to virtually everyone in the States. These are refreshing additions to the Planet Earth package, because if there's a single flaw that Planet Earth inherently has by design, it's that it only briefly touches on most of the interesting subject material and then moves along. Perfectly understandable considering the fact this series is covering the biomes and habitats of the entire planet, but it's nice to be able to slow down for a bit and focus on subjects of a much smaller scope. It's for this very reason that these episodes are somewhat more appreciable than the 11 episodes that make the core of Planet Earth, and you should definitely etch some time in your schedule to check these out.
Also included is a sneak peek at the next sure-to-be documentary hit, Frozen Planet.
The outer slip box (the packaging pulls out from the side) is thicker than your normal slipcover, and houses a hardcover book that acts as a home for the discs in the set. Each flip of the cardboard pages inside reveal a massive landscape or animal that relates to the disc featured on that 'page'. As far as how the discs themselves are contained within each page... well, I wish they were more secure. If you're familiar with the Alien Anthology, Deadwood - The Complete Series, or Star Wars - The Complete Saga boxed sets, the discs are actually seated in the middle of the page, using the surrounding cardboard of the page to hold them in place. This not only keeps the discs from sliding around, but it also prevents the edges of the discs from getting dinged. The Planet Earth - Special Edition set opts to merely carve a slot on the side of each page however, leaving the sides of the disc exposed. As a result, two of the discs in my set had (what I would consider to be) severe nicks in their side. Almost as if a razor knocked into them with a bit of force. It wasn't enough to damage the data part of the disc, but it causes some concern as to how the discs will be affected in the long term. That being said, this was only my personal experience with the set, and I'm sure most of you won't have any issue with your sets. Blu-ray discs are pretty resilient, so purchase without fear. My issue with the set packaging is really a matter of personal preference - But, my humble opinion is that this packaging is inferior to the hub-based set from 2007.
The supplemental material is the real reason to upgrade from your previous Planet Earth collection, what with 6 new hour-length documentaries being included. And let's not forget the music only tracks that are included, as the isolated score playing over the masterful photography is an entirely different experience that you won't be able to soon forget. For those that are newcomers to Planet Earth and have been waiting to hear definitely which set would give you the most bang for your buck - This is a no brainer. If you were concerned about the 1080i video over 2007's 1080p, don't be. The video is really a wash on this release, and the encode utilized is, in theory, more faithful to the original source. The bottom line is that this release is being highly recommended to everyone, regardless of the fact that some of you may be in the position of a dreaded double dip. But, thanks to the impressive slew of extras that have made their way into this release, it's a double dip I'm confident most of you are going to feel good about.
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!