I unabashedly adore science-fiction; I love that it bends the rules of our real world and takes us out of the mundane of everyday living, into realms where space travel is as easy as hopping on the subway, giant radioactive monsters emerge from the sea to wage war on each other, a man can relive the same day over and over until he gets it right, and a gigantic train can circle the world on an annual basis and protect humanity from an ice age of its own making. (Seriously, Snowpiercer is the movie of the summer--watch it now!) However, remove the word “fiction” and one might naturally become a bit hesitant. Pure, unadulterated science is often thought of as education more than as entertainment, the stuff of exams rather than of escapism. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey manages to bridge that gap; while watching it, one does feel as though one has been pulled out of everyday life, via the program’s “ship of the imagination,” and into another world--that of the big picture.
This Cosmos is an update of the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by the late, great Carl Sagan. Sagan’s wife and collaborator, Ann Druyan, serves as executive producer, director and co-writer (with fellow original series writer Steven Soter) of this version, which also features the diverse contributions of Family Guy impresario Seth MacFarlane, Star Trek’s Brannon Braga and master cinematographer Bill Pope (who shot The Matrix trilogy, among others). Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, likely the world’s most charismatic astrophysicist, Cosmos is essentially a love letter, both to Sagan and to the universe that is our home. Its thirteen episodes tell the story of the galaxy, and the people who uncovered its various secrets, through a combination of animated sequences, awesome special effects and, sometimes, just Tyson talking. From the collaboration between Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton to publish mathematical explanations of the laws of physics, to Michael Faraday’s work with electromagnetism, to the female researchers at Harvard that worked to catalog the spectra of the stars, one is given a crash-course in scientific history for the price of a DVD rather than a PhD--and with less thesis writing at that.
Cosmos often feels childlike in it enthusiasm, which is both good and bad. One hopes that the program will serve as an excellent gateway drug for kids looking to learn more about science; however, it may elicit the occasional chuckle from more mature viewers. The series is incredibly earnest and moderately goofy; its extensive animated sequences often contain unrealistic, on-the-nose dialogue and some weirdly drawn people. Yet the enthusiasm of Tyson and his behind-the-scenes collaborators is infectious nonetheless--especially if, like me, your physics background consists solely of one summer’s read of A Brief History of Time as preparation for writing a screenplay about space travel. Viewers with a background in science may be a tad more underwhelmed, but I don’t believe Cosmos was designed for them anyways.
As one watches Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, one is repeatedly awed by the vastness of both time and space. As Tyson informs us during the first episode via his “cosmic calendar,” if the entire history of the universe was the length of a calendar year, mankind’s recorded history would only comprise the last second of the very last day. It’s easy to forget one’s individual problems when one is reminded of how small we all are in the grand scheme of things; as initially bleak as that may sound, it definitely provides a healthy dose of perspective as well as wonder. Forget science fiction--isn’t that it’s own kind of escapism?
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
It’s worth shelling out for the four-disc Blu-ray edition of Cosmos, both for the gorgeous high-definition imagery and for the eight hours of special features. These include audio commentary on the first episode, a Library of Congress dedication, an interactive version of the series’ cosmic calendar, and two featurettes: “Cosmos at Comic-Con” and "Cosmos: The Voyage Continues."
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" is on sale June 10, 2014 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Ann Druyan, Bill Pope, Brannon Braga. Written by Ann Druyan, Steven Soter. Starring Neil Degrasse Tyson.