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View from Space with Heavenly Music, A
Every home theater room needs at least one good video wallpaper program to play in the background when you're throwing a party. When it's not turned on, that big screen TV is just an ugly gray box eating up real estate in your room. If you want to show off that expensive purchase, naturally you'll need to turn the set on, and better not to distract your guests with a movie or TV show when they're supposed to be mingling with one another. What you need is a series of pleasantly innocuous images that look nice on the screen but can be safely left running in the background and ignored, and better still if they're in High Definition.
The content of A View from Space with Heavenly Music should be pretty self-evident from the title. Shot in High Definition by cameras aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, the program is pure video wallpaper. No actors, no dialogue, no story, no plot. Just short of an hour worth of footage of the shuttle launching and eventually looking down at the Earth below, played over your choice of 8 different soundtracks featuring classical music from Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Tchaikovsky, and others. Much of the imagery is very beautiful, some of the earthscapes positively breathtaking. If I have any complaint it's that despite 8 alternate soundtracks almost every piece of music is overly familiar and clichéd: "Ride of the Valkyries", "Also Sprach Zarathustra", "The Nutcracker Suite", Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6", "The 1812 Overture", "The William Tell Overture". You don't have to be a classical music fan to have heard each of these pieces a thousand times in a thousand different contexts. Frankly, it's something of a challenge to pick the soundtrack you're least sick of hearing already.
If you can get over that one issue, A View from Space is a pretty good if imperfect video wallpaper program. It isn't something I'd be compelled to watch from start to finish on any regular basis, but I'd certainly be inclined to let it play while waiting for guests to situate themselves before a real movie starts.
The Blu-ray Disc:
A View from Space with Heavenly Music debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Concert Hot Spot. The studio released the program on the HD DVD format back in June of this year, and have made a few changes for the Blu-ray edition in response to complaints about that previous disc.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The View from Space Blu-ray is encoded using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The program was shot on HD video and is presented in its native 16:9 aspect ratio. The packaging doesn't indicate whether the content is stored in 1080i or 1080p resolution, and my Blu-ray player doesn't offer any way of telling. Since this was a video-based production, it may have been 1080i natively.
When it was released, the HD DVD edition was reviewed by Adam Tyner here at DVDTalk, who described the video quality as looking like a heavily-multicasted PBS station feed, rife with compression artifacts and noise. I couldn't put it better. Although much of the imagery is very beautiful, the HD DVD's picture (which was also encoded with MPEG2, unlike most HD DVD releases that use the superior VC-1 codec) had a lot of high frequency noise and shimmer, and frequent blockiness and pixel breakups. The folks at Concert Hot Spot took notice of complaints like this and have made some alterations to improve the picture quality for the Blu-ray. Their solution was surprisingly simple and almost elegant in its relentless logic -– They've just cut out most of the worst-looking footage! That's right, the new Blu-ray disc runs about 3 minutes shorter than the HD DVD (55 minutes vs. the original 58), and the most artifacty shots have been chopped out. For example, close-ups of the red booster rocket on the launching pad that were such a mess previously are now completely gone; it's not even shown except in wide shots. While this strategy may not have been my first idea for fixing the video quality, I guess that's one way to do it.
Fortunately, it's not like this is a movie with a story or plot to follow. It's mostly just random footage shot out the window of the space shuttle. Removing some or jumbling it around makes little difference to the content of the program. The footage that remains looks mostly identical between the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions. There's still a lot of high frequency noise and shimmer, and several parts with visible posterization or color striation, but as mentioned the worst parts have been removed and overall it's pretty watchable, carried largely by the strength of the imagery itself. Colors are deeply saturated and a number of shots have a fantastic level of detail. Even some of the artifacty ones are still pretty impressive for what they show. One failing specific to the Blu-ray, however, is a noticeable and sometimes distracting clipping of white detail. Some of the brightest shots of the white shuttle exterior or cloud cover down on Earth exhibit serious white crush and looked better on the HD DVD.
The View from Space Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
According to the packaging, the program's soundtracks are provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. At the current time, the first-generation Blu-ray players do not fully support the DD+ format; they simply extract the Dolby Digital core bitstream, rendering it in quality equal to standard DD 5.1. The music here sounds pretty impressive regardless. All the tracks appear to be from recent recordings with excellent fidelity and occasionally some deep bass.
HD DVD players will decode full Dolby Digital Plus, and in comparison I found the HD DVD to have better breadth and expansiveness on several of the tracks. Whether the DD+ on the Blu-ray will equal the HD DVD on some future player that decodes it properly, I can't say. The Blu-ray is still quite satisfying even in just regular DD 5.1 quality, though.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – N/A.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
No bonus features of any kind have been included.
I actually find it kind of amusing that this is the first Blu-ray disc to boast of marginally improved picture quality over its comparable HD DVD, but only by virtue of the fact that most of the worst-looking footage has been cut out. A View from Space with Heavenly Music is a decent but unexceptional video wallpaper program. It would be a lot easier to recommend if its releases on either HD disc format weren't still compromised by compression problems and (in the Blu-ray's case) noticeable white clipping. As it is, I unfortunately can't recommend a purchase. Something with better quality will come along in the future, I hope.