Will Smith narrates ‘One Strange Rock,’ but astronauts are the real stars

National Geographic series embraces the wonder and weirdness of Earth

hydrothermal fields in Ethiopia

PRETTY PLANET  One Strange Rock contains gorgeous images of Earth, such as these colorful hydrothermal fields in Dallol, Ethiopia.

Graham Booth/National Geographic

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“The strangest place in the whole universe might just be right here.” So says actor Will Smith, narrating the opening moments of a new documentary series about the wonderful unlikeliness of our own planet, Earth.

One Strange Rock, premiering March 26 on the National Geographic Channel, is itself a peculiar and unlikely creation. Executive produced by Academy Award–nominated Darren Aronofsky and by Jane Root of the production company Nutopia and narrated by Smith, the sprawling, ambitious 10-episode series is chock-full of stunningly beautiful images and CGI visuals of our dynamic planet. Each episode is united by a theme relating to Earth’s history, such as the genesis of life, the magnetic and atmospheric shields that protect the planet from solar radiation and the ways in which Earth’s denizens have shaped its surface.

The first episode, “Gasp,” ponders Earth’s atmosphere and where its oxygen comes from. In one memorable sequence, the episode takes viewers on a whirlwind journey from Ethiopia’s dusty deserts to the Amazon rainforest to phytoplankton blooms in the ocean. Dust storms from Ethiopia, Smith tells us, fertilize the rainforest. And that rainforest, in turn, feeds phytoplankton. A mighty atmospheric river, fueled by water vapor from the Amazon and heat from the sun, flows across South America until it reaches the Andes and condenses into rain. That rain erodes rock and washes nutrients into the ocean, feeding blooms of phytoplankton called diatoms. One out of every two breaths that we take comes from the photosynthesis of those diatoms, Smith adds.

As always, Smith is an appealing everyman. But the true stars of the series may be the eight astronauts, including Chris Hadfield and Nicole Stott, who appear throughout the series. In stark contrast to the colorful images of the planet, the astronauts are filmed alone, their faces half in shadow against a black background as they tell stories that loosely connect to the themes. The visual contrast emphasizes the astronauts’ roles as outsiders who have a rare perspective on the blue marble.

OBSERVER FROM AFAR Chris Hadfield is one of several astronauts in One Strange Rock who provide an “outsider’s” perspective on Earth. National Geographic, Nutopia
“Having flown in space, I feel this connection to the planet,” Stott told Science News . “I was reintroduced to the planet.” Hadfield had a similar sentiment: “It’s just one tiny place, but it’s the tiny place that is ours,” he added.

Each astronaut anchors a different episode. In “Gasp,” Hadfield describes a frightening moment during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station when his eyes watered. Without gravity, the water couldn’t form into teardrops, so it effectively blinded him. To remove the water, he was forced to allow some precious air to escape his suit. It’s a tense moment that underscores the pricelessness of the thin blue line, visible from space, that marks Earth’s atmosphere. “It contains everything that’s important to us,” Hadfield says in the episode. “It contains life.”

Stott, meanwhile, figures prominently in an episode called “Storm.” Instead of a weather system, the title refers to the rain of space debris that Earth has endured throughout much of its history — including the powerful collision that formed the moon (SN: 4/15/17, p. 18). Stott describes her own sense of wonder as a child, watching astronauts land on our closest neighbor — and how the travels of those astronauts and the rocks they brought back revealed that Earth and the moon probably originated from the same place.

It’s glimpses like these into the astronauts’ lives and personalities — scenes of Hadfield strumming “Space Oddity” on a guitar, for example, or Stott chatting with her son in the family kitchen — that make the episodes more than a series of beautiful and educational IMAX films. Having been away from the planet for a short time, the astronauts see Earth as precious, and they convey their affection for it well. Stott said she hopes that this will be the ultimate takeaway for viewers, for whom the series may serve as a reintroduction to the planet they thought they knew so well. “I hope that people will … appreciate and acknowledge the significance of [this reintroduction],” she said, “that it will result in an awareness and obligation to take care of each other.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 19, 2018, to add a mention of a second executive producer.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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