'One Strange Rock': TV Review

Will Smith adds little, but fortunately this jaw-dropping series doesn't need him.
3/26/2018

National Geographic's Darren Aronofsky-produced look at Earth is full of breathtaking photography, heroic astronauts and global stories. Feel free to ignore host Will Smith.

For 4.6 billion years, Earth has survived without a hype man.

Our planet has done a top-notch job of taking form, generating and nurturing life, weathering extinction-level events, facilitating the evolution of humanity, weathering the impacts of humanity and giving us both Full House and Fuller House.

Even if much of Earth's citizenry isn't necessarily aware of all of the unique circumstances that had to occur (or not occur) in order to establish the delicate balance and precise ecosystem we enjoy today, chances are good that "Earth" would dominate a Twitter poll asking for our favorite currently inhabitable planet.

For those in doubt, however, National Geographic's new documentary series One Strange Rock offers Will Smith as host and armchair Earth enthusiast.

Smith established his Earth-loving credentials by protecting our planet against aliens or zombies or other potential apocalypses in at least a dozen movies. (He also played Lucifer in Winter's Tale, a role which, while anti-human, was not explicitly anti-Earth.) Smith's capacity as host finds him making unsubstantiatable claims like "The strangest place in the whole universe might just be right here," burbling everyman curiosities like "How on earth is there enough oxygen for everyone?" and punctuating exciting sequences with an enthusiastic "Boom!" that one might describe as "Will Smith-esque" were one not dealing with Will Smith. In the three One Strange Rock episodes that I've seen, Smith gardened with his dogs, did boxing training and kicked segments ominously to commercial with warnings like "Is the danger all in the past or is this the calm before another storm?" He also makes sure, a couple times, that we know that the strange rock of the title is... EARTH!

Smith added little to my enjoyment and became a high-energy annoyance.

I lead this review with my frustration with Will Smith — David Attenborough for the Mountain Dew Generation — because otherwise One Strange Rock is frequently spectacular, delivering the same sort of bringing-science-to-life thrills for Earth as Cosmos did with the universe and Blue Planet and Planet Earth have done with myriad lifeforms.

Featuring Darren Aronofsky and Jane Root as its big-name producers, One Strange Rock builds its narrative spine around commentary from an assortment of astronauts, people whose time in space ranges from eight to 160 days and gives them a unique perspective on our planet. The astronauts — including Chris Hadfield, Nicole Stott, Jeff Hoffman, Mae Jemison, Leland Melvin, Mike Massimino, Jerry Linenger and Peggy Whitson, for space-travel aficionados — discuss their experiences on the International Space Station, share certain amounts of scientific expertise and offer the sort of macro view that comes from watching electrical storms, silty river delta deposits and burgeoning dust storms from 240 miles above the Earth's surface.

Episodes focus broadly, with a lot of topical wiggle-room between ideas: The first hour is, as Smith's musings might tell you, on oxygen, specifically on what our ability to breathe has to do with the Amazon rainforest and microalgae, among other factors. The second episode focuses on how the violence of the cosmos led to our relatively stable planet, though also how an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, so maybe not so stable. And the third episode, titled "Shield," basically focuses on why the sun doesn't fry us. It's not until that third episode that One Strange Rock gets explicitly ideological and even then, it's no more political than, "Remember how we fixed the hole in the ozone layer? Our planet is fragile. Let's not wreck it."

One Strange Rock is fairly rudimentary on a scientific level. It's far, far less about educating you on the facts and figures of our planetary cycles and more about illustrating concepts in ways that are consistently breathtaking — something I know I can do because of, um, diatom shells or something — and often mind-blowing — like the way Theia and Gaia collided 4.5 billion years ago and left us with our moon and tides and whatnot.

The series features beautiful photography in space and all manner of computer-generated, science-aided modeling to simulate the things we'd never be able to photograph. And down on Earth, production filmed in 45 different countries, from the alien metallic flats and hot springs of Dallol, Ethiopia, to the high-altitude gold-mining inhabitation of La Rindconda in Peru to a Wages of Fear-style bumpy truck ride through the Amazon Basin with a soaring climate tower poking above the clouds as a destination.

These exotic jaunts are accompanied by the most dazzling of human micro-stories, frequently avoiding the most obvious geological or anthropological narrative in favor of the quirky or whimsical. The second episode in particular kept coming up with almost unimaginable occupations. In only a matter of minutes, that episode goes from Guillaume Nery, a performance freediver whose descent into an aquatic crafter left by a dinosaur-killing asteroid caused my jaw to drop, to Adam Aaronson, a meteorite dealer who instigates intense competition between Bedouins racing through Moroccan dunes on four-wheelers and motorbikes. Before this, I didn't know that "performance freediver" and "meteorite dealer" were actual jobs, and now I enthusiastically curse the series for leaving me wanting more details.

One Strange Rock is a show that cries out to be watched on the biggest possible television in the highest available resolution to marvel at the ice climbers on Crack Baby in Switzerland or a nighttime candle ceremony celebrating the balance of life at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Thailand. Feel free to fast-forward through (or simply ignore) Will Smith. There's plenty to get hyped for in One Strange Rock without the After Earth star's giddy ebullience 

Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)

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