- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
The series featured some of the most exquisite photography I’ve ever seen, approaching Earth with almost an outsider’s perspective for its varied topography and alien beauty. I thought One Strange Rock was an exemplary showcase for any high-definition television and a captivating series of vignettes focused on featured explorers, scientists and astronauts. It was an enriching travelogue filled with educational details that frequently derailed because somebody felt it was necessary to have Smith make ill-timed appearances as what I described as a “hype man” for Earth, contributing his trademark enthusiasm and little else.
Welcome to Earth
Airdate: Wednesday, December 8
Cast: Will Smith
I’m not saying that Disney+’s Welcome to Earth was produced to spite me, but the latest collaboration between Smith, Aronofsky and the good people at National Geographic looks to have been made with the edict, “One Strange Rock, only with even more Will Smith.” Or else with various productions shut-down due to COVID, Smith had space in his schedule to insert himself more fully into globe-trotting adventures. This results in a series that, like One Strange Rock, is notable for its diverse cinematography and the assortment of experts who get to share the spotlight with an A-list movie star who finds a way to make every remarkable experience about him, albeit occasionally with amusing results.
One can imagine a poster for Welcome to Earth in which agents for “Will Smith” and “The Planet Earth” had to jockey for first billing, resulting in a typographically advanced shared credit like Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac received for Scenes from a Marriage (only this one isn’t justifiable as a pairing of equals).
Welcome to Earth has been named and structured, perhaps retroactively, around Smith. The title refers to Smith’s famous Independence Day catchphrase, one so memorable that it was repurposed as the tagline — “Welcome to earth. Population 1.” — for I Am Legend. The conceit here is that Smith, who might have been a better ambassador for our planet before recent self-inflicted revelations about his sex life, is perhaps Earth’s most recognizable celebrity, but he isn’t always fully comfortable. He doesn’t love the water. He gets freaked out about some heights. He’s wary around larger animals. But he’s eager to adjust his perspective and embrace a planet that, under his watch, has been overrun by extra-terrestrials, zombies, mechanical spiders and overly confessional web series.
In the last of six Welcome to Earth episodes, Smith and Dwayne Fields, a British adventurer and TV presenter, have to navigate through a remote glacial patch of Iceland, and voiceover implies this is Smith’s opportunity to capitalize on the things he learned over the course of the series. At no point previously had the show given any indication that there was a cumulative purpose behind Smith’s various attempts to expand his comfort zone, and nothing he actually does in Iceland has much to do with anything he’d done previously. It all gives a strong impression of a show where somebody looked at the footage and said, “Is there anything we can do in post-production to tie this all together?” Add some voiceover, add some arty black-and-white talking head footage and suddenly you might convince audiences that there was a narrative arc to this whole thing. There’s not, but perhaps that’s how they wanted to differentiate Welcome to Earth from Will Smith’s Bucket List, a show that’s very similar — he even refers to some of his Welcome to Earth escapades as bucket list entries — and I promise exists somewhere.
The six episodes aren’t that much more clearly individuated. In each half-hour, Smith goes to a different remote location, from the oceanic depths to the lip of an active volcano to the heart of the Namibian desert, and has experiences based on concepts that range from the ephemeral to the very concrete, whether it’s witnessing (and attempting to photography) the astonishingly adroit tongue of a hungry lizard devouring a beetle or the various forms of marine life that exist in utter darkness.
Though Smith is accompanied on every jaunt by an expert, he uses narration to explain overarching themes like “sound” or “speed” or “light.” His own experiences are intercut with tangentially linked quests with solo explorers who, in most cases, will be his guides in other episodes. It’s implied that these secondary missions are meant to inform Smith’s primary journey, but that occurred maybe half of the time.
The explorers are beyond remarkable in their own right and I frequently wished that Welcome to Earth had had the confidence to let Smith play the foil to Trinidadian marine biologist Diva Amon, who appears in four episodes and is truly the show’s star, blind Erik Weihenmayer or NatGeo favorite Albert Lin, rather than the other way around. Smith’s job is to ask the dumb questions the audience would ask in his position, but it isn’t always clear that he’s listening to the answers so much as preparing for his next wisecrack.
Even if that sixth episode in Iceland may not be as cumulative as the show wants to pretend, it’s the best showcase for Smith as a hosting personality and suggests that maybe his third documentary collaboration with Aronofsky might be the charm. This time around, though, I found myself doing a lot of googling for clarification on information left only half-explained by Smith’s jokey bantering, and I honestly wonder if that’s how Welcome to Earth ended up on Disney+ and not on NatGeo.
Again, the reason you’ll want to watch Welcome to Earth is the visuals: Every episode has some piece of imagery, or two or three, that left me slack-jawed. Highlights include underwater filming of Amon swimming with sperm whales and later with thousand-pound manta rays, the capturing of the Milky Way from a salt flat in Bolivia and the harrowing mission to shoot a dangling beehive in Nepal.
The series was shot by a team of cinematographers and they’re the heroes who make it thrilling, scary and generally eye-popping — successful enough on every experiential level that I kept wondering why somebody felt the need to add an unnatural star-driven narrative to all of this natural wonderment.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day