Savage Earth
MPI Home Video // Unrated // $39.98 // April 24, 2007
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted April 20, 2007
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"Savage Earth" is a documentary mini-series (60 minutes each) that originally aired on PBS in 1998. Each of the films ("Out of the Inferno", "Hell's Crust", "Waves of Destruction" and "The Restless Planet") are narrated by Stacy Keach ("Prison Break", "Titus", "Mike Hammer") and look at a different destructive force of nature.

"Out of the Inferno" looks into volcanos, starting with the legendary and tragic destruction of Pompei, which was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius errupted in 79 AD. Soon after, the documentary looks into a volcano on the outskirts of Mexico City and the differing approaches to the mountain between the inhabitants of the mountainside (who give offerings to the mountain and believe that the smoke that billows out of it is the mountain communicating) and the scientists (who use their technology to come to the conclusion that the mountain is once again becoming active.)

While all of the incidents on this presentation are quite horrifying, particularly scary is the Nevada Del Ruiz incident in 1985. Warnings from scientists that the volcano was about to errupt were not taken seriously. When the volcano did errupt, pyroclastic flows melted the heavy snow that covered the volcano's peak, creating giant waves of scalding water that were filled with mud, ash and other debris. Tragically, 25,000 lives were lost in the aftermath of the erruption. Whole villages were quickly swept away by the deadly lahar (an extremely fast mudflow caused by a volcanic erruption.)

The last portion of the documentary looks at the extremely scary erruption of Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991. The volcano errupted, sending out a massive pyroclastic flow, which swallowed up the countryside at an incredibly rapid speed. The documentary does offer footage of the disaster and interviews with some of the survivors. Sadly, 44 were killed, including volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who had devoted their lives to studying such erruptions. The Kraffts had chosen a position they had thought was far away from the direction of the flow. When the wind made a sudden and unexpected shift, they didn't have time to react and were killed by the pyroclastic cloud.

"Hell's Crust" is the somewhat melodramatic title of the next installment, which continues along the subject of volcanos, starting with the remarkable Mount St. Helens blast, which started with an earthquake that triggered a massive landslide. Instead of exploding upward, the volcano exploded sideways, sending a massive pyroclastic cloud out at unthinkable speed. Tons and tons of ash spread out from the mountain, turning day into night in nearby towns. The ash cloud eventually made its way out towards other points around the globe.

A more unique story is from Indonesia, where a massive volcano goes off, covering the surrounding landscape in white ash. However, tens of thousands of feet in the air, a jumbo jet happened to be passing by during the erruption. The crew and passengers were not aware of the event, but noticed that the cabin had suddenly gotten smoky. The plane flew closer to the ash cloud, which stopped one engine, then all the engines. The plane quickly lost thousands of feet, only managing to get some of the engines restarted as the rushing air blew some of the ash out. Another unique tale later in the documentary offers the stunning story of islanders who, confronted with the loss of their village and its all-important fishing port, decided to wage what seemed like a losing fight: they figured out a way to cool the lava, eventually divering it away. The doc wraps with a couple of volcanologists discussing their experiences watching Mount Kilauea in Hawaii and the mountain's erruption.

"Waves of Destruction" looks into tsunamis, starting with Krakatoa, whose erruption in the 1800's caused enormous tidal waves, which wiped out anything in their path. A woman who survived a series of tidal waves in Hawaii recalls a day in 1946 when the water seemed to roll back into the ocean, leaving fish stranded. She and her students didn't think anything of it until they spotted a giant wave out at sea that was coming towards them and getting bigger and bigger as it got closer. The wave crushed the nearby cabin she took shelter in and took the lives of her friends and some of the students she was teaching. Japan is also a large focus, as the documentary profiles such incidents as the severe Earthquake that devastated Kobe, Japan in 1995.

The documentary also visits with scientists studying Earthquakes who are trying to find new ways to predict them, as well as people who are "Earthquake sensitive", meaning they have specific symptoms that follow with seismic activity in the area. Finally, "The Restless Planet" focuses more on Earthquakes, starting with the shocking, sudden 1989 Earthquake in San Francisco that caused terrible destruction. Many across the US and the globe sat in horror as they watched the World Series (taking place in San Francisco) in their living rooms, which was suddenly interrupted by the violent, nightmarish shaking that was clearly visible in the broadcast. The first third of the documentary focuses on the '89 quake, some of the heros in the aftermath of the quake and the forces in the Earth behind the quake. Another focus in the documentary is the 1985 Mexico City quake, which turned buildings into rubble, despite the fact that many of the buildings were thought to be quake-proof.

Overall, "Savage Earth" is an informative and interesting mini-series that takes a look at nature's destructive forces and the attempts by humans to further understand them in an attempt to have earlier warning. A main issue that I had with the program is that the series does try to fit a lot into each hour, and I occasionally wished that the program would take out one or two segments to give a larger focus to some of the bigger incidents. Additionally, the program is also understandably not "up-to-date" at this point, having been aired nearly 10 years ago.


VIDEO: MPI presents the mini-series in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. The presentation isn't too bad, but it looks at times if it was taken from a tape copy. Sharpness and detail aren't consistent, looking reasonably good at best and a little below average at worst. Some minor artifacting appeared, as did some slight shimmering. Colors looked natural and accurate, with no smearing or other issues.

SOUND: Crisp, clear stereo soundtrack, with no distortion or other issues.


Final Thoughts: "Savage Earth" is an informative and interesting mini-series that does sometimes seem a little overstuffed. The DVD set offers no extras, but fine audio/video quality. The series is an enjoyable look at the destructive forces of nature, but the series is ten years old at this point, and the $39.99 price tag seems high. Those who are interested should seek the series out as a rental first.

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