‘Breakthrough’ Review: The Future Is Now

The breakthroughs described in National Geographic Channel’s ambitious six-part series aren’t all equal in promise or tone. Episode one, on the battle against pandemics (director Peter Berg), provides an extraordinarily detailed, disturbingly graphic account of the spread of Ebola in West Africa. In particular, the way it attacks and, usually, kills.

A doctor who managed to survive the virus provides a spellbinding personal history. The threat of such a disease spreading throughout the world comes through with admirable and terrifying clarity. The experience with Ebola, the film suggests, may provide lessons for the control of future pandemics. It’s a possibility the film raises cautiously, without any trumpeting promises, and this, too, is admirable.

In the following episodes, there’s a film on that other long intractable problem, human aging; others on energy, the character of the brain, the world’s water supply. By far the most appealing of these is the one titled “More Than Human”—on the technology that powers robots, the mechanisms that make it possible to expand human abilities and, more to the point, to facilitate walking in people who otherwise can’t. This chapter is directed and narrated by Paul Giamatti, who brings a characteristically persuasive curiosity and energy to his role as researcher of robot technology, which he begins with a visit to a bookstore. It’s one that specializes in science fiction, which, Mr. Giamatti notes, has strong obvious connections to the subject at hand. It’s a canny lure—like his delight in all he finds—into his wanderings. They’re well worth the trip.