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It's new Advice Category time again here at DVD Talk, as the Smithsonian Channel releases its 45-minute DVD of 'a daredevil quest into the eye of the storm'. More than many other one-shot TV-on-DVD releases, Thunderheads boasts some universal appeal. After all, who doesn't react strongly to thunderstorms? And when you fold in the question of what effect Climate Change will have on monster storms, it's even more intriguing. Yet this short subject, of which there are many, many comparable examples on TV, is too slight to really merit a purchase, and too readily available in some form or another to barely even necessitate a rental. That's why we give this still entertaining documentary the coveted Buy It For Your Nephew's Theme Gift Basket rating.
Luckily, this is an exciting, compelling story, so when you're forced to watch it with your storm-chasing nephew, or you find it on TV, you'll be glad you did. It sounds like a movie: The global crew of scientists and fighter pilots from I.C.E. (the International Cloud Experiment) are heading down to Darwin, Australia - one of the southernmost cities on the planet - to study "Hector," a super-thunderstorm. Hector is an extremely dangerous beast, the scientists are deadline-driven and casual about the perils the pilots face, the pilots are near revolt, and their equipment - some of the most sophisticated planes and gear around - keeps breaking down.
Despite that promising premise, the remainder is fairly standard TV documentary stuff. You'll find only one somewhat new technique here, as far as documentaries go, and it's a bad one. When talking heads interviews are shown, the subjects are superimposed in front of cloud footage (which is a nice change from your standard colored background) but they're surrounded by idiotic black halos that poorly separate them from that footage. Otherwise, the usual graphics and maps, on-the-ground footage, and truly stunning aerial footage of awesome clouds bracket these interviews. As we learn more about thunderstorms than we'd ever expected, the pilots and scientists, as they work together and bicker, gradually turn into quirky characters, way more so than in other documentaries of this type.
Being able to somewhat connect with these personalities is a nice counterpoint to the true draw, gawking at storms while sucking up heavy concepts. Even the setting fits the hyperbolic subject, since Darwin nicely fills the 'outpost at the end of the world' role. Above this outpost and out at sea, the pilots encounter 100-mile-an-hour winds, lightning, microbursts, gravity waves and other terrifying stuff, all while capturing storm-chaser-porn imagery. Of course Climate Change is dragged into the mix, causing paranoid viewers such as myself to imagine a future composed of non-stop violent storms. Somehow, this also fits the bill. Yet no matter how thrilled you might be by this, it ends quickly and only merits repeat viewings by the truly obsessed. Perhaps your nephew Gordon is among those obsessed.
The 1.66:1 non-anamorphic, semi-widescreen HD presentation doesn't do justice to the gorgeous and beguiling images on display. It's not big enough. At least the image is clear and crisp, with nice color and no compression artifacts.
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Audio Tracks are both well mixed and distortion-free, with OK dynamic range. Even without a surround setup, the 5.1 track is the way to go, as - at least on my TV - the 2.0 track sounds a little tinny and echoey.
Previews for 12 other Smithsonian Channel DVDs, as well as English SDH Subtitles are the only extras.
While this 45-minute documentary about serious thunderstorm research features nifty personalities, cool concepts and gorgeous imagery, it's simply too short, and such a common subject for cable TV, (Weather Channel, anyone?) to merit a purchase. That is, unless your nephew Gordon, who has a birthday coming up, wants to be a meteorologist. You might put this in his gift basket, or I suppose you could Rent It.