The Earth is the most alien planet you’ve never seen. Watching One Strange Rock, the Nat Geo series directed by Darren Aronofsky that premieres tonight with the episode “Gasp,” you won’t recognize the only home you’ve ever known.
In one scene, a scientist in a Hazmat suit unsteadily traverses a seemingly endless neon terrain that bubbles with toxic gas. In the next, Ethiopian salt farmers take axes to the cracked and crystallized ground that surrounds them for miles to harvest salt. The diversity and weirdness of Earth is a shocking thing to be faced with in this way, particularly because the series has all the hallmarks of Aronofsky’s film work. Fruit bats fill up an African sky and then suddenly there is a disquieting close-up of their digestive systems. A little beetle scampers across the Moroccan desert — and as soon as you identify with its perspective, it’s hurtled aside by a dust cloud from a dirt bike. There is barely time to reorient yourself to grasp there are such things as Bedouin meteorite dealers.
In an interview, Aronofsky said the original name of One Strange Rock was indeed Alien Planet. The staggering shots are so far beyond our comprehension Aronofsky turned to the only people who could interpret them for us: astronauts who have witnessed them from outside our orbit on the International Space Station. Each episode features Chris Hadfield, Jeff Hoffman, Jerry Linenger, Leland Melvin, Mike Massimino, Nicole Stott, and Peggy Whitson explaining what they have seen and how it has changed them. Will Smith offers intermittent narration, acting as a surrogate for the viewer themselves, but mostly just expressing wonder and bafflement.
Even those watching from home will be overcome with feeling. That was the idea, Aronofsky said. “The best part of the show is you’re thinking a lot, you’re learning a lot and then suddenly this weird emotion creeps up on you,” he said.
Nicole Stott, an engineer who has worked on designing space shuttles and is also a NASA astronaut who spent time on the ISS, said in an interview, “I think it’s taking the experience and hoping you can share it in a way that everyone walks away feeling like you did when you looked out the window, when you experienced Earth that way.” Stott said she wants viewers to have the sense of separating from themselves and connecting to the planet and those they share it with in a lasting way that influences how they live their lives and the choices they make.
“During one of my spacewalks, we went through the southern lights and they were pouring around the ship,” Hadfield said in an interview. “I felt like I was surfing on the Earth’s aurora and it’s magical and gorgeous and surreal and yet this is real, this is our planet, this is our electromagnetic field, our electromagnetic energy, poetry and beauty all at once.” That’s why he has dedicated himself to transferring that feeling to others. “A big part of the astronaut responsibilities are not to keep it to yourself,” he said, One Strange Rock being an ideal vehicle.
There’s a lot to be in awe of. The 10 episodes in the series chronicle the astounding events that led to the formation of Earth and what sustains it. Aronofsky said they contain the culmination of 100 weeks of shooting that was edited at the same time as his film Mother, an Earth creation story of an entirely different type. “Both projects have the same protagonist, Mother Earth,” Aronofsky said. “They were kind of two different ways to think of a similar thing: One is a cautionary tale and One Strange Rock is a celebration of the planet.”
The narrative of One Strange Rock is as strong as anything fictional and you would think you know the entire plot. But there manage to be Aronofskyish twists, like Earth having had an evil twin named Theia. “We’re storytellers,” Aronofsky said of himself and his production company Protozoa Pictures. “Even in documentary, you’re telling a story.”
“It’s strange that they’ve blended together,” he said of his film work and One Strange Rock. The parallels go beyond Mother. “There are episodes that are just The Fountain,” he said of his time- and space-stretching movie. “‘Survival’ is basically the science that comes out of that is exactly the same thing.” Though he conceded, “well, maybe we pushed it a little bit that way.” There’s not much that has to be changed for dramatic effect though, when you’re dealing with how we got air or water.”
“It’s a tale of destructive good fortune,” Will Smith says in summing up one particularly important millenia-old storm, but it’s a story that applies to the entire history of the planet.
One Strange Rock, a 10-part series, premieres tonight at 10/9 Central on the National Geographic channel.