COSMOS Lite for the generation of attention-deficit gamesters.
They call COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY a reboot (which is a fad term for movie properties rehashed due to lack of original scripts, brand recognition and merchandising venality). So this update of ever-changing scientific information is most decidedly not a reboot, but a new introduction to the same old information about Life, The Universe and Everything, with new knowledge gleaned from scientific experiment over the last 34 years since the debut of Carl Sagan’s turtleneck in COSMOS 1980.
Among many executive producers, there is first and foremost Ann Druyan (Carl’s loving widow, like-minded scientist, co-author, business partner, and co-instigator of the original COSMOS), and Seth MacFarlane (yes, that Seth MacFarlane – FAMILY GUY, TED), who seems to have his fingers in every pie these days (TV, movies, books, cartoons), which I’m presuming allows him to have his fingers in every pie.
Sagan acolyte, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts. Brannon Braga directs (best known as writer for STAR TREK movies and TV series); evocative music by the mighty Alan Silvestri (BACK TO THE FUTURE, PREDATOR, CAST AWAY, THE AVENGERS).
Creationists made a stink over not being included in the COSMOS narrative. To them I very respectfully say, “Oh, fuck off!”
EPISODE 1. Standing Up In The Cosmos
The first thing we hear in Episode 1 is Carl Sagan’s voice, from the original series, intoning an almost-biblical fiat: “The Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.” And I wept. In its first seconds, COSMOS 2014 displays its respect for its elders, for the mastermind who started it all, the scientist who took us to the edge of forever and bid us go further. Atop that same grassy hilltop where Sagan launched his spaceship of the imagination, the new Master of the Universe stands, science popularizer for a new generation, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Telling us that COSMOS needs to continue, so that the work of those who came before will not be left uncompleted for those to come. He is right. Science continues its forward march; new worlds discovered, new laws, new universes…
Later, when Tyson describes how the elements of stars (hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, iron, etc.) are built into our frames and everything else in the universe, and then appears through a galactic cloud, repeating Sagan’s formidable dictum, “We are all starstuff,” I just broke down and cried.
So COSMOS 2014 has given its due respect to its elders, but it has not given that same respect to its subject matter, which is riddled with gaps in information, and some scenes implying wrong information. Carl Sagan’s COSMOS sometimes slanted into goofy because of its space in time, lack of CGI, the state of knowledge, speaking down to a less sophisticated audience, etc. but it never intentionally provided misinformation. Just one example of COSMOS 2014 making a small mistake, compounded with a larger mistake:
Tyson, as Sagan did, sets off in a “spaceship of the imagination” that is a device allowing us to visualize being there with him as he describes galaxies, moons, asteroids. He first does a flyby of all the major planets. Firstly, that spaceship keeps making a “swooshing” sound through airless space (annoying and demonstrably wrong, for which I’m sure Mr. Tyson is chagrined), then it passes through the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, showing a field of asteroids all clustered in space like a scene from any 1950’s science fiction movie when moviemakers and audiences didn’t know any better. Neil, and his executive producer Ann Druyan, know better. This is not how the Asteroid Belt looks; if you were to fly through the Belt, you would be lucky to see two asteroids in your same field of vision. Space is called space because it’s full of… space.
His spaceship continues toward the group of Trans-Neptunian Objects (asteroids and worldlets) known as the Kuiper Belt. Say it, Neil. Say the name. He doesn’t, for some odd reason; he shows us Pluto, telling us this former planet is a part of “this group of objects.” (Also, he doesn’t explain why or how Pluto was re-classified as a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) – that’s some snappy new information this new COSMOS should definitely update!) Then the filmmakers compound these tiny mistakes by doing a stupid thing – they show Neil’s spaceship dodging asteroids like Han and Chewie in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. What the hell–? Don’t they know – and I’m sure they do – that even if asteroids were clustered together like that (which is a bogus visual) they all travel in the same orbit, not dive at you from different directions? Instead of wasting time on this stupid Millennium Falcon visual, Neil could have been telling us of the new discoveries since the old COSMOS – dwarf planets like Quaoar (discovered 2002), Sedna (2003), Eris (2005, the most massive dwarf planet); besides a quick reference to rogue planets, Neil doesn’t mention the discoveries of nearly 2000 exo-planets, exo-Jupiters, exo-Earths in habitable zones, etc. Maybe the series will explore these items in future episodes, but no suggestion is made that they will.
Neil Solo tells us he is in the Oort Cloud, the aggregation of rocky bodies that encapsulates the known solar system, telling us they are each as far apart as Earth is from Saturn. Okay… so how come you were just dodging them like the Empire was on your tail? Annoying. There are many other tiny annoyances like this throughout – it’s like climbing into a Rolls Royce with McDonalds wrappers littering the floors.
- Renaissance Italy’s Giordano Bruno, and his run-ins with the Inquisition and Mother Church, who burned him at the stake for his astronomy revelations.
- Multiverse theory
- The Cosmic Calendar – compressing all of the universe’s history into one calendar year.
- The “asteroid that killed the dinosaurs” and mankind’s wild beginnings.
It’s knowledge, it’s sincere, it’s continuing Sagan’s legacy. Still, I’m disturbed with some of the prosaic explanations, and representations of galaxies and spacetime. For dramatic license and time constraints, we obviously have to speed up orbits, we have to see movement through spacetime in seconds as opposed to millennia, we have to see the moon forming in seconds through accretion, we have to simply state “an asteroid killed the dinosaurs” and so on – but I’m always worried that some people (let’s face it – at least HALF the American population who vote Republican) will not, and never will, understand the metaphors and time-compressions. One example: lame comedienne Natasha Leggero does a bit: “If evolution is real, why aren’t apes still evolving? Why aren’t they turning into people still?” Well, Natasha, you’ve answered your own question by being an ape halfway to human… but I’m not even going to try to seriously explain. Stay gold, Natasha. This is exactly what I mean by misapprehension to the nth degree by muttonheads (of which the human race is comprised of quite a few).
There are smatterings of updated information – such as “multi-verse theory” (a concept entirely foreign to Sagan’s era) – yet there are noticeable omissions where there should have been updates. For example, Tyson visits the Big Bang with a pair of dark glasses, a low camera angle and some blast furnace effects (that’s nice, but how about explaining the Big “Bang” is more correctly an “expansion of a singularity,” to get that notion of an atmosphere-based combustion explosion out of people’s heads?). Then he completely glosses over cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), which is how the Big Bang was deduced. If you don’t explain how the remnant of the CMB was traced back to determine how long it has been lighting up space in all directions, then simply saying “The Big Bang happened 13 billion years ago” is as detached and inexplicable as saying “Let there be light.” It doesn’t sway the other side of the fence, and it fails to give credible support to sensible youngsters who wish to expand their knowledge. These things could have been explained easily in the time it took to blaze the screen with dumb special effects that we’ve all seen before in any given blockbuster.
Nearing the end of Episode 1, Sagan’s voice chimes in, with another of his legendary dictums, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” So mythic. So extra-dimensional. So true. Tyson narrates a montage of Sagan, detailing his turtle-necked scientific accomplishments, and then – a touching anecdote of his first meeting with Sagan in 1975, as a 17-year-old. To Sagan, it would have been one of thousands of such meetings with young wannabe astronomers, yet the famous scientist treated Tyson with such respect and care, that the young Tyson would take that lesson into his life.
In the final telling, this new COSMOS is a noble upgrade, with Neil deGrasse Tyson embodying the perfect host (the only other person dynamic and current enough might be Michio Kaku), but it is not nearly “new” enough. It reminds me of SUPERMAN RETURNS. Same 30-year-old story, upgraded with better effects. The first episode of COSMOS 2014, contrary to expectation, does not fully explore the further reaches promised by its predecessor, but rather seems to pander to dime-a-dozen ignorant studio heads (the new Mother Church) who want to tell people what to like, and like to tell people what to want. And what the people like – according to ignorant studio heads – is the same ole same ole information repackaged. Without the turtleneck.