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Hi-Def Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Peter Schorn and Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Planet Earth: The Complete Series
2006 (2007) - BBC (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc & HD-DVD on April 24, 2007 (also available on DVD)

Planet Earth (Blu-ray Disc)Planet Earth (HD-DVD)

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Program: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 14
Extras: F

Nature is everywhere. (Incredible Profundity Alert!) It's all around us, not only in the form of the Great Outdoors but in the steady flow of nature programming available on the good old boob tube. Whether it's PBS, Animal Planet, ESPN2 or Spike TV, there is an endless parade of programming featuring wild wildlife doing wild things. (Just kidding on the last two; hold those angry e-mails.) How ubiquitous is critter coverage? At the moment I'm writing this sentence, Animal Planet is running a show about bear cubs in the Grand Tetons, with shows about seahorses and sea turtles on deck.

With what used to be exclusively the bailiwick of PBS nature shows now inescapable, how can the familiar subjects be freshened up? In the case of the Oscar-winning (and phenomenally overrated) March of the Penguins, the secret was to tart up a standard-issue Nature episode with Morgan Freeman's sultry narration. But for the smash hit BBC series Planet Earth, the strategy was more ambitious: Spend five years and $25 million shooting with high-definition cameras all over the globe, from pole to pole, to mountain peaks, to ocean floors, with jungles, deserts, caves, treetops and almost all points in between. Whether it's near-microscopic organisms or the largest mammals on Earth, the Planet Earth team was there to capture the spectacle in eye-popping detail. And by far the best way to bring it home is in high-definition.

For nearly eleven hours, these episodes - From Pole to Pole, Mountains, Fresh Water, Caves, Deserts, Ice Worlds, Great Plains, Jungles, Shallow Seas, Seasonal Forests and Ocean Deep - are simply bursting with one stunning sight after another. Over and over again during these hours I became aware that I was watching in drop-jawed fascination. In moment after moment, I was surprised by things I'd never seen happening in places I never heard of. Maybe nature shows have progressed farther than I was aware of since my youth, or maybe I'm just easily impressed, but the 'wow' moments just keep coming here. Using spectacular aerial, time-lapse and slow-motion photography, we're treated to sights like a Great White shark snapping up a seal in mid-air and ultra-slow-motion; kangaroos licking their forearms to stay cool in brutal desert heat; polar bear cubs emerging from their den for the first time and sliding down the slopes; never-before photographed animals on the brink of extinction captured in their forbidding natural habitats; massive lakes forming in arid climes from spring melt waters and hosting a menagerie of fish, fowl and four-legged critters; as well as the starling scenery these lives inhabit.

However, for all its beauty, Planet Earth has regular doses of the wilder side of wildlife too, specifically in the sense that just as birds gotta fly, beasts gotta eat... and there is a distinct lack of drive-thrus in the middle of nowhere. Sensitive viewers - not just children - may be upset by some of the chilling scenes of hunting and killing, or the aftermath of failed hunts as we're told that unlucky predators will likely starve. Chimpanzees cannibalize a victim of an inter-pack rumble, and fungal spores burst forth from hapless jungle insects in scenes from Ridley Scott's nightmares. My girlfriend eventually started referring to the show as "Planet Death", and routinely fled the room until I gave the all clear. While these are the facts of life, and the producers don't dwell too long on the carnage, it still may be too intense for some, so viewer discretion is advised.

If there is a fault with the series' structure, it's that the globe-hopping format frequently left me unsure where in the world we were. Gorgeous shots of the Earth from outer space separate the segments, but it's not possible to tell what countries are being shown. Frequently, some Northern Hemisphere locale would be shown, followed by someplace Down Under. For those unclear as to where Tasmania and Tanzania are, a simple graphic of a globe showing the destination highlighted would've been appreciated - something that could be easily have done as a special disc viewing mode or feature. Also, the need to cover so many things limits the time available to go really in-depth on anything in particular, but it never felt superficial.

With Planet Earth freely viewable on Discovery Channel on any given Sunday, why should you plunk down the jack to add this to your library? Simply put, the high-definition image quality available on the new Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD editions is absolutely stunning. Colors are brilliant, vibrant and clear and the detail - oh my, the detail! - is exceptional, allowing for broad vistas with animals appearing as miniscule specks to be rendered with hyper-realistic clarity. Black levels are solid and enhancement and filtering artifacts are nearly totally absent. A few of the high altitude shots betray the limits of even these new-fangled hi-def formats, with some aliasing and chatter, but these instances are few, far-between and more about a reviewer's need to find a fault than problems with the transfer. (Is it too early to demand a 4K format?) Some darker scenes betray some noise, but it's understandable and source-related. Savvy retailers looking to move mass quantities of big HDTVs would be well-advised to play this series in their showrooms on eternal repeat and have salesmen standing by armed with order pads.

As excellent as the visual side of things are, the audio side is a big disappointment. Only a vanilla Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is offered on these discs, and the original BBC narration by David Attenborough is the only version provided; the Sigourney Weaver track from the Discovery Channel run isn't included. While the track is technically adequate without any distortion or hiss, it's not very exciting as the musical score and sounds of nature are mostly dipped low in level to allow for the narration. Even more disappointing is how sparsely the surround channels are utilized. Nature shows are heavily buffed and sweetened sonically in post-production, and the decision to forego enveloping the viewer in environmental ambiance is curious. It's so front-loaded that on the occasions that the back of the room is brought into play, it's almost startling.

Even more disappointing is the absolute lack of any supplemental materials on this set. (No, the extended credits don't count.) The five-disc standard DVD edition includes a trio of follow-up episodes covering environmental and conservation themes, and every episode has ten minutes of making-of footage. None of it is included on the high-def versions. Time after time, I wondered how these breathtaking scenes were captured, and so the omission of any sort of commentaries or production diaries is sorely felt. When the price tag for the hi-def versions is 25% higher than the standard DVD version, it's a raw deal to lose over 20% of the content from the "cheaper" set.

Still, while the short-shrift on the extras front is annoying, it doesn't diminish the beauty and majesty of Planet Earth: The Complete Series in high-definition. Unless you're the most jaded nature show viewer alive, or a developer who thinks that all these vistas need to be complete are some strip malls and subdivisions, you owe it to yourself to take this journey around the planet upon which you're living. Highly recommended.

Peter Schorn

Prison Break: Season One (Blu-ray Disc)

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Prison Break: Season One
2005 (2007) - 20th Century Fox
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 7, 2007

Program: B
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B-

Specs and Features:
Approx 960 mins (22 episodes at 42 mins each) , NR, AVC 1080p (1.78:1), 6 BD-50 discs, Elite multipack packaging, audio commentary on 8 episodes, deleted scenes, 4 featurettes (The Making of Prison Break, Behind the Ink, If These Walls Could Speak: Profile of the Joliet Correctional Center and Making a Scene), TV spots, insert booklet, animated program-themed root menu with audio/"in-program" menu overlay, episode/scene access, languages: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English) and Dolby Digital 5.1 (French and Japanese), subtitles: English, Spanish, Japanese and French

The surprise hit of the 2005 TV season, Prison Break was originally conceived as a 13-episode placeholder to get people through until the popular 24 returned for its next season run on Fox. But Prison Break became such a hit out the gate that the last few episodes were quickly re-written to continue the series with a "back nine" pick-up on Fox, after American Idol tryouts finished airing. Subsequently, over the last three years we've been treated to one of the most ludicrous and entertaining shows on television.

20th Century Fox's flagship TV on Blu-ray release takes the previous DVD set, not to mention the original 720p HDTV broadcasts, to the cleaners in terms of video quality. The 1080p video on these discs is near cinema-quality. Shooting your entire show on the same few sets for 22 episodes lets the DP really focus on perfecting his lighting set-ups, and the results pay off here big time, with deep inky blacks and gorgeous high contrast imagery. A fair share of shots are filled with grain or have soft focus, but that's a stylistic choice and the consistency is what's most rewarding here. Gone are the compression artifacts from the TV broadcasts, and with double the resolution for each and every frame, all the little details pop here. Just for fun, use your pause button on Scofield's "wall of scheme" to check out all the little notes and articles, virtually all of which are actually coherent text. I'm sure there are some fun little Easter eggs hidden here, so be on the lookout.

Despite its DTS-HD lossless audio track, Prison Break on Blu-ray is not quite the knockout in the audio department that the video is. Being a TV production, there's a lot less ADR done here than for, say, a feature film. If you do an A-B comparison with the DVD release, you'll notice far more activity and clarity to the surround channels here, but only a slight improvement in the mains. At points, elements like the score or fight sounds are quite aggressive, but most of the time the mix is front-heavy, with some ambience thrown in. All in all, the soundtrack here is nothing special, but it does the job.

Identical to the DVD release from last year, the extras are decent but not spectacular. Aside from a bunch of justifiably deleted scenes and some throwaway EPKs, the real star of the show here is the Behind the Ink featurette, which deals with Scofield's tattoo design and application. Not only does it take forever to apply (which is why even on the hottest days, the actor seems reluctant to roll up his sleeves), but it had to be designed with the idea that they could fit whatever plot device or storyline they wanted into it at a later date. Strangely, probably the best look at the tattoo in high-def comes from the Blu-ray's brand new menu screen, where clips from the show are worked into the art, and tinted to match.

Also noticeable among the extras is a featurette on the history of Chicago's Joliet prison, better known to film fans as where the Blues Brothers were incarcerated. I'm surprised that with all the space left over on Disc Six that Fox didn't throw in the show's web episodes, but you do get six commentary tracks with the cast and crew on the set. Much of the cast participated in these, except (oddly) series star Wentworth Miller. The actors keep things light for the most part - there's a lot of nice banter and occasionally you learn something too. Finally, you get the usual round of TV spots for the show, along with other ad campaign materials.

One last note: This set's episode guide booklet is a thin fold-out piece that's shoved into the front of the case, where it barely fits over Disc One. It's almost certain to get banged all to hell with multiple openings and closings of the case, and someone thought it was a good idea to rubber cement it shut.

Prison Break simply is what it is: A fantastic short series that has somehow ballooned into its third season. There's been plenty of action along the way, but the series has yet to top the suspense and drama of these fabulous first 22 episodes. I hope that after the reported end of the current storyline in Season Four, the show might move into different eras with different casts (or even the same cast, how about Wentworth Miller as the Commander of a Nazi POW camp, or a Napoleonic prison?). There's a lot of prisons throughout history to break out of, so I can't wait to see where this series could go.

Jeff Kleist

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