The intrepid viewer who is not drawn to big entertainments, who prefers films that inform and expand their knowledge of the world, is accustomed to sifting through the selections available on the major streaming sites to find the occasional nugget. I’m speaking of documentary films, not the frothy, vapidity of so-called reality TV. If you count yourself in that camp, I’ve discovered a new service that I think is worthy of your attention: An oasis of knowledge called CuriosityStream.
Following the theatrical documentary circuit can yield a high number of doom-and-gloom films, movies that dutifully warn us about the horrors of war, famine, disease, and the end of the world. CuriosityStream reaches further than that; in fact, it lives up its name—it’s curious. Where else could you find a documentary about laughter? The site does not feature theatrically released or Oscar-winning documentaries. There are few celebrity narrators. But what’s here is fascinating, exciting, and even refreshing.
Subscribers to CuriosityStream get the first month free, and the two available plans deliver the same content, but at different resolutions: the high-definition (HD) option costs $6 per month while the standard-definition (SD) runs $3 per month. Those prices give viewers unlimited access, across all devices. But before you opt for the cheaper SD plan, know that some of these docs feature gorgeous visuals.
The programs can be single titles that run anywhere from a few minutes to about an hour, or they can be part of a series. The homepage starts off with four basic categories: Science, Technology, Civilization, and Human Spirit.
I clicked on the Music category in the Human Spirit section and found, happily, nothing on Justin Bieber or Kanye West. Instead I found a show on Stradivarius, one called Inside a Virtuoso’s Brain, and one in which Icelandic pop star Bjork spends an hour talking about music with BBC broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough.
Clicking further, I found documentaries on Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and then an interesting series of interviews, The Sessions, done by photographer Norman Seeff, attempting to find personal connections with his subjects, folks like Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, and Merle Haggard.
In the Philosophy section, here is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins with a three-part, three-hour discussion of Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life, in which he asks what life might be like in a world without religion. It’s a wonder that some of the world’s most powerful churches haven’t tried to shut it down. Part One is called “Sin.” How could anyone resist?
Under Civilization, lest anyone is beginning to think that this is getting boring, we get a section called Conflict, and shows like Crusades, Vikings, Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, William the Conqueror, After Braveheart, and—perhaps best of all—Viking Women.
After more browsing, I stumbled upon a delightfully addictive little series simply called Science Shorts. Currently there are twenty episodes running less than 5 minutes each, on subjects such as weight gain, cyborgs, nuclear waste, and dating. The shorts are boldly narrated, and inventively produced with lots of fun animation.
I also watched, almost at random, a clever short doc called, hosted by philosopher and futurist Jason Silva, talking about how technology will co-exist with human beings in the future. Even if you don’t agree with its premise, this little film features some truly astounding graphics. I also looked at a mind-blowing, equally beautiful item called Journey of the Universe, which contemplates our very existence in space.
Unlike YouTube, the site has a Kids’ Mode that subscribers can toggle on or off from their account page (a password is required). With Kids’ Mode on, the site hides any videos with possible adult content; all that remains is kid-friendly. Yes, there are lots of dinosaur videos, including The Rise & Fall of T-Rex and How to Build a Dinosaur, which shows the construction of dinosaur skeleton for a museum.
Usability is excellent, and searching and browsing is easy. Hovering over a video provides a little bit of information about it, but clicking on a video starts it playing right away. Viewers can watch in full-screen, and share on social media with one click. The HD picture and sound are crystal clear, and there are no ads!
CuriosityStream allows users to vote on each video with a 1- to 5-star rating, and it keeps track of how many have voted; but as far as I can tell, there’s no way to search for the most-popular or highest-rated videos. There are also no comments, so it’s impossible to discover why any particular video has received an especially high (or low) rating. Also, new videos don’t seem to be promoted, and it’s difficult to tell how frequently new material is added, although I did discover one with a release year of 2016.
Of all the programs here, no title better sums up the experience of CuriosityStream than this one, belonging to a 1981 BBC documentary about Nobel laureate Richard Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.