“Breakthrough” is hardly a breakthrough, rather representing the latest permutation on an increasingly popular trend: adding sizzle to documentary, science or do-gooder programming by involving celebrities, just as Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” did. While that was a single-topic endeavor devoted to climate change, this six-part enterprise, produced by Imagine Entertainment in concert with GE, turns filmmakers loose on different topics, with varying degrees of success. Give the talent credit for trying to help viewers eat their vegetables, though it’s a disheartening sign of the times that there’s a perceived need for star sauce to flavor them.
The underlying idea for the series — other than offering producer Brian Grazer a chance to stroke the egos of his friends and collaborators, billed as “visionary” in the press notes — is to take a dive into cutting-edge technology that offers hope for improving our lives or addressing serious ills. So part one features Peter Berg wading into the war against global pandemics; the second hour lets Paul Giamatti delve into robotics and cybernetics; and the third, from director Brett Ratner, explores efforts to decode the brain.
In the fourth, and probably best of the lot, Ron Howard tackles genetic research that would slow aging — thus providing longer and more vigorous health — as well as that breakthrough’s ethical considerations. Writer Akiva Goldsman examines alternative forms of energy (perhaps the most inherently political of the six topics), and in “Water Apocalypse,” Angela Bassett weighs in on ways of increasing the supply of potable water, which seems especially timely in the drought-stricken California, although there’s also harrowing footage of a water-starved village in Ethiopia.
Inevitably, one of the side effects of watching the episodes all at once is noting who chose to insert themselves into the proceedings. In Giamatti’s case, he has a front-row seat as he goes around interviewing the experts, reading science fiction and even sharing coffee with director David Cronenberg, who has his own thoughts on the matter. Howard, more cleverly, demonstrates the effects of aging through a rapid-fire series of snapshots showing the passage of time on him, from “The Andy Griffith Show” through “Happy Days” until now.
Yet as the introductory hour demonstrates, there’s only so much a director can do with this kind of material, and certain efforts to make it more accessible risk becoming risible. Simply put, it’s hard to make some of this stuff exciting, no matter how beautiful the animation is, or how artfully one shoots the drips of blood generated by an outbreak of Ebola, referred to, along with SARS and AIDS, as “recent escapees from nature’s bioweapons lab.”
The four actors all narrate their films, adding a personal touch. In its totality, “Breakthrough” can be seen as hopeful, not only regarding the ingenuity and brilliance of the researchers, but in the fact that those minds are being deployed in an attempt to thwart many of the threats that, if you watch enough cable news, look destined (or at least determined) to kill us all.
Obviously, National Geographic Channel is looking for a way to make programming within its wheelhouse pop, and it’s not like the network can host star-studded premieres (as it did for this one) for most similarly themed fare. Judged strictly on its merits, the hours are perfectly respectable. But while the exaltation of celebrity culture and its relationship with programming of substance might help explain “Breakthrough,” in the bigger scheme of things, that hardly feels like progress.