I’ve started and restarted this review ten times or more and I just can’t seem to find the right words to describe how profoundly personally moving I found Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to be. I could tell you I learned a lot from it or that it left me in tears, but you’d then only have the faintest understanding of what it is to experience Cosmos. I know what this sounds like, and you can jokingly insert that one line from Contact here if you must, but I’m serious, folks!
Like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) before it, the 2014 follow-up Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is one of the rare pieces of media with the potential to fundamentally alter audiences’ worldviews. Over the course of 13 episodes, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes audiences on a tour of the observable universe from the atomic to the most macroscopic levels, going so far as to condense the entire history of the universe into a single calendar year for perspective. And Tyson presents all this material in carefully-worded layman’s terms that makes even the most complex scientific facts easy to grasp. The result of all this is that viewers walk away from Cosmos with a greater understanding of their role in the history of all things. It’s a breathtaking and humbling experience, to say the least, one that’s both highly educational and thoroughly entertaining.
More than that, though, Cosmos has the ability to move you on an emotional level as you come to realize how insignificant all the problems you may think you have are, when understood in the grander scheme of things. It asks us to step outside ourselves and view the universe holistically, not as a collection of celestial bodies in service of man, but as a place where we are oh-so-fortunate to be alive in the first place. After all, especially given the universe’s bombastic origins, it seems highly unlikely that life would come persist anywhere in the cosmos, much less evolve into such intelligent creatures as ourselves. Stressing that life is precious and fleeting, Cosmos urges us to rethink the untold devastation we (meaning mankind) are wreaking on the Earth through carbon emissions and deforestation.
The series’ writers, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, understand that for such a message to come across the public has to be educated in the science behind these dangerous activities. And so they take their time getting to these points. They establish the scientific principles upon which their warnings are based over the course of more than a half dozen episodes before discussing the real threats we’re facing and the historical antecedents to such potential environmental disasters.
To get viewers to this point, Tyson invites audiences aboard the “Ship of the Imagination” (a carryover from the original series), which takes us everywhere from the interior of an atom to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. With its sophisticated visual effects, the series is able to make things you’ve perhaps only ever read in the abstract a physical reality, bringing science to exciting life before your eyes. What’s more, the scientific lessons imparted by Tyson throughout are tempered by historical perspectives of the development of the scientific theories discussed. These portions of the series are presented as animation, which seems at first an odd choice, but ultimately the shift in formats serves to keep things ever-engaging. In this, Cosmos approaches what are some of the most significant events and mind-blowing truths in the universe with terrific inventiveness, which is only matched by the writers’/presenter’s sincerity and excitement.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (though why anyone would not pony up for the Blu-rays or hold out until they have an HD system is beyond me). This is one that literally everyone with a Blu-ray-capable system should own, like Planet Earth long has been. And it comes to us loaded with special features as well. Among them are an interactive look at the cosmic calendar, commentary on the first episode, “Cosmos at Comic-Con 2013,” a thorough making-of featurette, and a tribute to Carl Sagan at the Library of Congress that opens with a terrific speech from one of the series’ executive producers, Seth McFarlane.