“This is not our sky. And we are the invaders.”
After enjoying moderate success with a documentary that used computer animation to recreate the daily life of dinosaurs, those same experts pointed their pixels to outer space, with this speculation about what it would be like if a planet was discovered with similar living conditions as Earth. To add some credibility to the whole thing, a group of genuine scientists tag along for the ride to share their opinions about this Alien Planet.
After locating a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere, a probe is sent to the world to search for signs of life. Because it takes more than 40 years to cross the vastness of space, robots with their own artificial intelligence are the explorers. Expecting to find some microorganisms at best, the robots, nicknamed “Ike” and “Leo,” instead are at the mercy of dinosaur-like predators, mobile plants the size of office buildings, a sea that has evolved into its own giant life form, and even more surprises.
There are two threads running through Alien Planet. The first is the story of the robots and everything they encounter during their visit. The second is interviews with actual scientists, speculating about the nature of the world and its inhabitants. Sure, it might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but after seeing genuine paleontologists, physicists, and NASA engineers pontificate about fictional aliens for two hours, it gets to be too much. It’s one thing seeing an animated alien with two legs that runs like a horse. But then, when the show cuts to a biologist explaining how the creature evolved to be that way and how it is able to maintain its balance while running at great speeds, that’s when I want to stand up on my couch and yell at the screen, “It isn’t real!”
Fictional science aside, the animated portion of the show is much better, with a number of odd creatures and environments to explore. Based on a book by writer/illustrator Wayne Barlow, the creators have filled Alien Planet with as many odd varieties of alien as they can. We first meet a herd of vaguely buffalo-like lugs that fight for dominance with one another, then move on to tree-dwelling predators with long black claws. Things get even stranger as the action progresses, with electrified mushrooms, bioluminescent predators, flying beasts with natural jet propulsion, and giant creatures that spend half their lives partially buried, feeding on nutrients in the soil. The amount of creativity and thought that went into each beastie’s design is really amazing. This is especially true of the living sea. Such an organism probably could not exist, but with millions of years of evolution at work, who knows?
Because it’s based on fiction, Alien Planet does not quite work as a documentary. So how does it fare as a work of fiction? Because our protagonists are robots only following their pre-set programming, there is little drama to the proceedings. The creators give it their best shot, by putting one robot in peril and having the other cross a furious storm to get to it. But overall, there’s very little drama here. One wonders if Alien Planet would have been better served if it had been created as a video game rather than a television show. That way the player would be in control of one of the robots, exploring this world on their own and making these wild discoveries for themselves.
The brainy part of the movie is best when dealing in generalities, not specifics. Dr. Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) keeps his dignity by discussing the future of space travel and exploration, rather than speculate about the feeding patterns of a CGI monster. The film would have been better served by more interviews like his. Star Wars creator George Lucas is in this as well. But all the Ewok fans out there might be disappointed to learn he’s only got about a minute of screen time.
With the majority of the show created with CGI, it’s no surprise that the picture quality is pristine, with no apparent flaws and bright, vivid colors. The same goes for the live action footage. But where the disc really shines is in the audio. The creators have gone to great lengths to make the world sound truly alien, and to give each creature its own unique roars and grunts. Each oddball sound effect comes through all five speakers with great clarity as well. The only extras here are two extended interviews, with Hawking and James Horner—that’s James Horner the scientist, not the composer.
So, how does this show play for children? On one hand, kids will probably delight in the two friendly-looking robots wandering around a planet, running into all kinds of crazy creatures. On the other hand, the interview segments might convince them that this is a real place with real animals that they might visit someday.
The show ends with a lot of unexplained mysteries. There is certainly the potential for another visit to this faraway world. We only hope that any follow-up special will find a better way to juggle fact and fiction.