'World War II from Space' Gives Us Breadth, but Not Depth

This History Channel documentary's reliance on CGI and bird's-eye-view visual effects end up making the whole conflict feel less like a battle for civilization and more like a video game

World War II From Space

Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini
Network: The History Channel
US release date: 2013-05-07

World War II buffs have had plenty of videos to savor these past few years. From the colorized images of the French-produced Apocalypse: World War II, to 2010's high-def WWII in HD, to the perennial classic The World at War (reissued in 2004 with bonus material, and still the benchmark WWII doc) to somewhat zanier offerings—The Occult History of the Third Reich, anyone? Indeed, there has been an abundance of video material released on DVD to satisfy the most rabid aficionado. Moreover, the apparent success of such offerings all but guarantees that new products will be forthcoming.

Which brings us to World War II from Space, the latest cash-grabbing WWII tie-in, this one courtesy of The History Channel. The idea of recounting the battles and shifting tides of the war from an orbital viewpoint is a clever one, but not one that can sustain an entire 90-minute program. There are revealing moments, but ultimately the show's reliance on CGI and bird's-eye-view visual effects end up making the whole conflict feel less like a battle for civilization and more like a video game. Needless to say, this is a disservice to the millions who died in the war, both military and civilian.

In fairness to the producers, World War II from Space doesn't set out to trivialize the conflict. Relying on globe-spanning maps and highly detailed computer animation, the program seeks to recreate events from Pearl Harbor to the atomic bomb. (For the most part, this is a strenuously American-centric program, although it does acknowledge that the Soviet Union did the lion's share of the work—and took the vast majority of the casualties—in stopping Hitler.) Essentially, the satellite views and re-creations amount to little more than elaborate maps of the type seen on any war program, but the topography is, sometimes, more elaborately revealed. The rout of American troops by Rommel's forces in North Africa is made more comprehensible by a 3D map which shows the narrow valley in which US forces were trapped; this is, however, one of the few instructive uses of a technology which all too often comes off as gimmicky.

The doc goes for an approach which aims for breadth rather than depth. The major events of the war are touched on—the Pearl Harbor attack, the Soviet repulsion of Nazi troops, American convoys to Britain and involvement in North Africa, D-Day, the Pacific War. We never spend more than a few minutes in any one theatre, and the program's preferred style is to sketch out the parameters of each conflict in strokes that are as broad as possible. Political, economic and even societal issues are absent. Even the familiar figures of the war, men like Patton and Rommel, MacArthur and Montgomery, are scarcely mentioned. Yes, there's Hitler and Stalin and FDR, even a little Mussolini; but the millions caught up in this conflict are for the most part faceless and nameless. Maybe that's an inevitable side effect of viewing such events "from space": the human dimension is all but lost. (A loss which is reinforced, perhaps unintentionally, by the extensive computer animation, which replaces flesh and blood for pixels.)

In general, the doc moves along at a brisk pace and the energy rarely flags. This is to be expected, as 90 minutes is hardly enough time to hit the major developments of the war with any kind of depth or insight. The combination of bird's-eye graphics, archival footage and talking-head interviews—of both military historians and combat veterans—ensures that, as with the best historical documentaries, information is conveyed efficiently in easy-to-swallow increments. Even if the material is familiar, and it probably is, the mix of quick pacing and easy-on-the-eyes visuals makes for an inoffensive viewing experience

However, there are some unwelcome quirks to the production. Transitional montages are overused, including multiple quick-cuts of satellites in orbit around the globe—a device employed in a vain attempt to generate excitement about the whole "war from space" thing. Most of all, though, the program frustrates with its oversimplifications: this is a very shallow overview of an enormously complex conflict, and it offers little new to any but the most uninformed of viewers. Bonus features, which might have been an opportunity to include a bit more depth, are entirely absent.

World War II from Space is by no means a horrible documentary; it just doesn't add much to our already considerable corpus of videos about the war. For a young viewer, or one with little previous knowledge, the computer graphics might hold some trendy appeal. For other viewers, though, there are plenty of more substantial offerings.






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