Everybody loves nature docs, but nobody appreciates them quite as much as your friendly neighborhood stoner does. In order to find out why, I placed my finger on the pulse of the cannabis community (r/trees, duh) and wasn’t disappointed with what I discovered.
“It’s almost confusing to watch high,” writes Redditor ThatCatisaFish in reference to 2016’s Planet Earth II. “I felt like sometimes what I was watching wasn’t real.” Other users can relate. Bluntcaramelarrow, recalling sister series Blue Planet, in which an eel escapes from toxic shock after diving head-first into a brine pool hellscape, says they kept thinking the creatures on screen were actual “aliens.”
Looks like the folks over at Netflix’s programming department did their homework, because back in December the streaming service launched a little something called Alien Worlds. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the property, it’s a four episode long speculative documentary series in which a David Attenborough-esque narrator guides you through the fictional ecosystems of distinct but totally non-existent planets.
Thanks to state-of-the-art CGI, the flora and fauna that populate these heavenly bodies—named Atlas, Janus, Eden, and Terra—are rendered with the same kind of crystal-clear cinematography we expect from the shows that Alien Worlds evidently tries to emulate, and it succeeds. But attached to that victory is a price tag of galactic proportions that ultimately prevents this cinematic experiment from becoming the stoner’s dream it could have been.
It Isn’t Easy Playing God
Although Alien Worlds technically qualifies as fiction, it’s by no means a nonsensical fever dream. In order to immerse viewers, the developers had to design ecosystems that felt real, and in order to do that, they called on the help of Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist with the University of Westminster. As a consultant, Dr. Dartnell’s helped ensure the appearance and behavior of the animals featured did not contradict the laws of evolution as they exist on Earth.
“We picked four different worlds that were different from each other,” Dr. Dartnell told me over a Zoom call, one that we did audio-only in fear of losing our fragile internet connection. “The first we picked was a super-Earth planet—a planet that is bigger and therefore has stronger gravity than Earth, which allowed us to explore how life could adapt to changes in gravity.” Because extraterrestrial life—in any way, shape, or form—has yet to be discovered, Dr. Dartnell’s field of research uses life on Earth as a reference point to predict what life off Earth might look like. As a result, many of the creatures seen in Alien Worlds loosely resemble animals we know all too well, but with a neat twist. On this super-Earth (Atlas), for example, we get to know the ‘sky grazers’: a species of giant whale-like herbivores that—thanks to Atlas’ powerful gravity—are able swim through the air, kind of like that sequence from Disney’s Fantasia.
While some episodes contain kernels of familiarity, others are truly otherworldly. The second episode, for instance, takes place on a world that’s become tidally locked, meaning one side of the planet constantly faces the sun where the other faces away from it. Under such unearthly conditions, it is only natural that life there would be unearthly, too. At first, the pentapods (not to be confused with Arrival’s heptapods)—five-legged pod-like creatures whose three antennae slither along Janus’ surface in search of scrawny meals—certainly appear to be.
At first, because even these aliens are Earth-like in ways that you might not expect. Most complex life on our home turf has bilateral symmetry, meaning the left side of their bodies mirrors the right side, save for some internal organs. Slice a pentapod in half, however, and you will find that those halves are far from identical. Sounds alien enough, all right. But is it really?
“Most life forms on Earth have bilateral symmetry,” Dr. Dartnell tells me, making me feel like all those hours of watching PBS Eons in bed may actually be paying off. “But we also got something called rotational symmetry. Jellyfish or starfish, for instance, have more types of repeating patterns than a fish or human might do. These body plans can be easier to code for genetically.”
Stuck On Earth
While the input of actual astrobiologists like Dr. Dartnell was a nice touch, it alone wasn’t enough to turn Alien Worlds into a smash hit. The limitations and shortcomings of the program tease the ambitions of its starry-eyed creators to such an extent that most viewers will be left wanting more – and not necessarily in a good way.
Chances are this realization will sink in within the first few minutes of watching. The trailers and other marketing materials for Alien Worlds cleverly focused exclusively on the CGI-rendered environments, rather than the real-life segments that make up the majority of the show. Surprised to hear that? You shouldn’t be, because producing four one-hour episodes of animated scenery that can go toe to toe with the most breathtaking nature series available would require a budget as infinite as the galaxy itself.
To create enough content, the alien world bits were padded with mini documentaries that explain and illustrate the scientific thinking that went into designing Atlas, Janus, Eden, and Terra. This means that the introduction of a predator-like animal that inflates its body only to divebomb on top of the sky grazers is accompanied by a video in which hawkers explain how their birds can swoop down from dizzying heights at breakneck speeds to surprise bottom-dwelling prey.
As great as these segments are, they are not what people bargained for when they decided to watch a series called Alien Worlds. The fact that they also break the immersion created by the sections that take place on said alien worlds only adds fuel to a fire that was already too big for the producers to extinguish.
At its core, every nature doc promises to transport its viewers to a different world. While Attenborough rarely passes on an opportunity to remind us we occupy the same reality as the creatures crawling across our screens, let’s not forget his series is known to shoot in places that simply cannot be accessed without cutting-edge technology such as drones or underwater cameras.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that the idea behind Alien Worlds is incredibly solid. As promising as this premise is, however, it’s still too difficult—and costly—to execute successfully. While the foreign ecosystems are able to inspire a sense of wonder as powerful as that of the Planet Earth franchise, the experience gets bogged down by a collection of ordinary, earthbound short films which simply should never have been thrown into the mix.
Finally, while there are plenty of Redditors talking about the show, most of them express interest in viewing it during their daily smoking sessions, rather than recommend the journey after having seen it all the way to the end, and that’s a shame. Let’s hope Netflix takes notice again and gets to work on a sequel that actually does the concept justice. Until then, do enjoy this appetizer; its creators deserve some praise.