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Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed (Blu-ray)
Discovery Channel / 2006 / 102 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: January 30, 2007
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Monday, March 12, 2007
Editor's Note: Non format-specific portions of this review also appear in our HD DVD review of 'Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed.'
'Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed' is one of four episodes of the shot-on-HD "Discovery Atlas" television series that have recently been released on Blu-ray, HD DVD and standard-def DVD. These first four documentaries (Australia, Brazil, China, and Italy) kick off a planned twenty episode series designed to highlight various countries around the world in stunning high-def. While most of the destinations feature places frequented by tourists, this series has proven itself to be no mere commercialized travel brochure. Instead, the show prides itself on focusing on the natives of each country -- their stories, their lives, their unique struggles and accomplishments, and their pride as it relates to their homeland. 'Australia Revealed' is a gorgeous trip through the speckling cities, the stark outback wilderness, and the small villages of a fascinating country that I now want to visit more than ever.
Narrated with gruff ease by Russell Crowe, 'Australia Revealed' never veers into cue-card staleness on the part of its host. The Discovery Channel producers obviously worked hard to get a notable name that had a real passion for his country and it shines through every audible moment. Compared to the seemingly boastful Italian narration of Isabella Rossellini in the same series, this track is breezy, informative, and interesting throughout. Shortly after an atypical, momentum-building montage opens the show, the producers turn their focus to several people who call Australia home, including a sheep shearer named Jason Wingfield, a traditional aboriginal performance artist named Arthur Tamwoy, and the Randall Crozier, the director of the Anna Creek Station (the largest cattle station in the world, covering a massive 6 million square acres). The camera also follows people who live in the desert, a naval cadet in the Australian Navy, a female athlete, and a husband and wife team fighting to preserve sites and relics of the past. All of the people who are interviewed (particuarly Tamwoy and Crozier) are thoroughly engaging.
Meanwhile, the Austrailian landscapes are breathtaking -- while a bit of time is spent in Sydney, a large portion of 'Australia Revealed' explores the Outback, the wilderness, and some of the lesser toured regions of the country. Unique animal and insect life thrive in conditions that bounce from one extreme to another. Most interestingly, the people present are creatures of adaptation to the various cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles of a myriad of drastically differentiated societies lumped between the same borders (an example of in-country tolerance from which the U.S. could currently learn an important lesson). The sheer contrast between the sprawling, technologically-advanced cities and the ancient villages captured my imagination from beginning to end. While I'm sure there are deeper documentaries about the cultural hodge-podge that is Australia, 'Australia Revealed' caught my attention because it could have simply been a collection of nature footage showcasing the beautiful country rather than the people who make the land so rich and textured.
The only major failing of 'Australia Revealed' is that at an hour and forty minutes, it covers so much ground that I couldn't help but feel like the parts of the country got a bit short changed. I almost found myself wishing The Discovery Channel had orchestrated twenty episodes about Australia rather than thinly spreading its attention across different countries. In the end, 'Australia Revealed' is best viewed as both a near-reference-level picture quality demo and a stirring introduction to the continent and its people.
For the vast majority of its runtime, 'Australia Revealed' is an impressive presentation of vibrant colors, fine details, and the well-roundedness of its AVC MPEG-4 transfer. The HD broadcast was already a top tier bragging point for The Discovery Channel in high definition, but on this Blu-ray release it's nothing short of a revelation. Skin imperfections, blowing sand, rustling brush, and tiny textures on buildings are all dazzling -- popping out of the screen with perfect depth and dimension. The lines of hair falling along the necks of cattle, the creases and cracks in the aborigines' few possessions, and the thousands of tiny scales on fish and reptiles can be counted and catalogued with absolute certainty. When the video is clicking, there isn't anything prevents it from being absolute shot-on-HD reference quality. There was also no discernable difference in picture quality between the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions -- they're both a treat.
However, there are a few moments when this 1080i video presentation stumbles. While not nearly as frequent as in the HD broadcast, compression artifacts still occasionally trickle across the screen. A pan of a shoreline, two short glimpses of overly crowded underbrush, a solid bright-blue shot of the Outback sky, and a random view of Paris all display slight source noise -- mainly noticeable because such issues are so absent from the rest of 'Australia Revealed.' But nevermind that -- if you're looking for a vibrant demo disc that will bring your friends to a standstill, 'Australia Revealed' more than fits the bill.
Like most documentaries of its type, the narration and conversation-heavy track relegates a majority of the sound design to the front of your home theater. There is nothing terribly wrong with this 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix -- it's all just a bit underwhelming. More quiet moments of immersive Australian ambience would've helped the entire documentary by leaps and bounds and the few moments of channel movement fail to attract much attention. Sadly, only rustling foliage and distant birds inhabit the rear channels.
While Russell Crowe's soothing enthusiasm keeps things moving, the vocal clarity of the interview subjects is burdened by a variety of small audio issues related to their location. Minute wind noise, muffling, and voice wavering is present outdoors (pretty typical and not overly problematic), and there are some rare volume inconsistencies that could've been adjusted in post production. Overall, while technically solid, I can't rate the audio package in any review without factoring in the soundscape itself. In the case of 'Australia Revealed,' it just doesn't have the power, resonance, or memorability of the film's amazing visuals.
Well, this is a first. While the 'Discovery Atlas' series has been released on standard-def DVD as well, apparently that release (which we've been unable to get ahold of for comparison purposes) includes no extras. Which means that all included supplements on the HD DVD and Blu-ray releases of this disc are exclusive to high-def disc (see the section below).
Considering 'Australia Revealed' was limited by airtime as a television show, I was expecting a lot of additional footage and interview pieces to appear as bonuses on the disc. Alas, there really isn't much here in the way of supplemental features.
There's a short promotional spot for 'Australia Revealed,' a quick Q&A with the documentary's director, a photo gallery with two dozen photographs from the show, and a promotional featurette (that appears on each Blu-ray release in the "Discovery Atlas" series) that explores the directors, the purpose of the worldwide project, and the HD filming of the series.
On the bright side, at least all of the included supplements are presented in full 1080i resolution.
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All in all, between the engaging documentary and the lavish visuals, 'Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed' is certainly worth your time. While it may be hampered by a boring audio package and a slim set of supplements, this Blu-ray release will easily showcase the visual oomph of your home theater and can literally turn heads on a store's showroom floor. That alone is worth the $24.95 list price.
- 52" Sony Bravia XBR3 1080p Flat-Panel LCD
- Sony Blu-ray (BDP-S1) Player
- Yamaha 7.1 (840w) with Klipsch Synergy series 7.1 speakers
- HDMI and optical audio connections
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