The Galapagos Islands have long been synonymous with Charles Darwin and his 19th century study of natural selection. Darwin spent five years of his life on the HMS Beagle, a retired navy vessel conducting hydrographic surveys off the coasts of South America. His most-famous visit over that period was to a cluster of islands near Ecuador that were home to a vast number of undocumented animal species. The creatures defied the common logic of the time and immediately captured the scientist's awe.
The Galapagos Islands continue to host biological mysteries to this day. Recently, National Geographic and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commissioned a nature documentary to explore the islands and their unusual wildlife. The result was 'Galapagos.' Shot in high definition, this three part series was broadcast in the UK in 2006 and ultimately found its way to America via the National Geographic channel in 2007. Narrated by actress Tilda Swinton (currently starring in 'Michael Clayton' but more commonly recognized as the villainess in 'Constantine'), the 150-minute documentary chronicles the organisms, locales, and unique geographical features of the famous volcanic islands.
Although the Galapagos Islands are on my short list of places to visit before I die, until now, I had only experienced them through pictures in textbooks and poor quality documentaries on television. By comparison, this high-def documentary is nothing short of a revelation. The shots and scenes are so three-dimensional that I often found myself lost in the spectacle. Like the BBC-produced series 'Planet Earth,' 'Galapagos' grabbed hold of that curious little kid buried in my adult brain and refused to let go.
The educational value of 'Galapagos' is impressive as well. The documentary is divided into three, 50-minute segments -- an introduction to the islands in "Born of Fire," a look at the way they shaped the theory of evolution in "Islands that Changed the World," and an examination of how life on the islands has changed over the years in "Forces of Change." Like the very best documentaries out there, 'Galapagos' engages the eyes and the mind to convey the sheer wonder of its subject, virtually assuring itself a place in classrooms across the globe.
The only minor complaint I have is that Swinton's narration is at times a bit too soothing for its own good. Make no mistake, she does a fine job of conveying the necessary information, but on a few occasions I found myself tuning her out and focusing more on the images. Although this is a common problem with many nature documentaries, I think a narrator with a stronger presence could have upped the doc’s overall energy, and made for an even more impactful viewing experience.
Minor nitpicks aside, ‘Galapagos’ is a truly stunning work that brings the fascinating biology and gorgeous imagery of the Galapagos Islands to life. Documentary fans and nature lovers will fall in love this film –- I know I did.
As BBC Video's next-gen followup to its phenomenally successful 'Planet Earth' box set, this dual-format high-def release of 'Galapagos' brings with it some pretty weighty expectations. Happily, like the film itself, the picture-quality on this one delivers in spades.
Presented in 1080p with identical VC-1 encodes on HD DVD and Blu-ray, the video transfer on 'Galapagos' is a sight to behold. Colors are natural, and perfectly saturated. Strong blues and greens dominate the palette, while vivid reds leap off the screen. The level of sharpness is striking and consistent throughout the entire series, flawlessly rendering such minute details as reptile scales covering tiny flecks of flesh, cracked and aged lava rocks, and minuscule insects crawling in the high grass. Best of all, 'Galapagos' doesn't suffer from the video noise that occasionally affected 'Planet Earth.' The source is clean, and I didn't catch any artifacting or haloed edges.
As you would expect, the video quality on this HD DVD disc is an obvious an upgrade over the blocky HD television presentation. Contrast is more stable, blacks are pure and inky, and pixelation doesn't appear during fast camera pans. In fact, the only issue I noted with this edition of 'Galapagos' was a slight bit of color banding that appeared from time to time. To be fair, the problem is only apparent during the opening scenes, underwater shots, and in several glimpses of the bright sun, but it pops up frequently enough to knock this one down half a notch.
Still, all things considered, 'Galapagos' is a visual wonder that surpasses its TV counterpart and arguably trumps even its 'Planet Earth' cousin. This disc should have an easy time finding its way into demo players at electronics stores across the country.
I didn’t expect a bunch of fancy bells and whistles from a documentary of this sort, but I did hope for a level of audible immersion akin to the average surround mix featured on 'Planet Earth.'
Unfortunately, the only audio mix on 'Galapagos' is a Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 stereo track (448 kbps) that doesn't pack much punch. To be fair, seeing as the film itself is dominated by Swinton's languid narration, I’m not sure that a surround presentation would have added all that much. Still, it would have been nice to get a little more oomph out of this one. In particular, I found myself really those missing hearty bass rumbles and high-end frequencies with the film’s more ambient elements like waves, wind, and animal calls.
On the bright side, the technical quality of Swinton's voice is stable and free of any notable issues, and the rest of the track is solid as well, even if it is ultimately underwhelming.
(Note that both the Dolby Digital-Plus track on this HD DVD and the standard Dolby Digital track on the Blu-ray disc feature the same audio bitrate, and to my ears, they're indistinguishable.)
Like the standard-def DVD release of 'Galapagos' (released in April 2007), there are no special features on either high-definition edition.
A fascinating and visually stunning documentary, 'Galapagos' is almost sure to find its way into HDTV showrooms across the country. Unfortunately, while this HD DVD makes for some great high-def eye candy, a standard 2.0 sound mix and a total lack of extras drag down the overall grade. Given this disc's extraordinary visuals, I still think it’s worth a look, but be sure to set your expectations accordingly.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.