“I’m going to tell you about the most incredible place,” says host Will Smith. “It might be the weirdest place in the whole universe...and you know what? You’re walking on it.”
So begins a riveting cinematic journey into the bedrock of human existence we all call home: Earth.
Like many documentaries before it, National Geographic’s One Strange Rock explores the wonders of the blue planet and how it has sustained itself and millions of species over billions of ears. But the 10-episode series takes this journey a giant leap ahead – it explores the inner workings of Earth from the perspective the few human beings who have ventured outside of it, astronauts.
From this vantage point, the show, co-produced by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and media executive Jane Root, spans 45 countries and six continents to highlight lesser-known facts about the minute and interconnected phenomena that have made life possible on our planet. The series, produced by Nutopia and Protozoa Pictures for National Geographic, will be premiered on Monday at 9pm.
The first episode, Gasp, hosted by Smith and astronaut Chris Hadfield, takes off from the most basic, universal and instinctive unit of existence – breathing.
The presence of oxygen is what makes Earth unique in its ability to host a wide variety of life. To understand how this vast repository of sustenance came into being, the episode takes viewers on a fascinating journey spanning Dallol in Ethiopia, Danakil in East Africa, the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Svalbard in Norway, among other places. The camera aids this thrilling ride as it hovers above Earth one moment and plunges into the depths of the ocean the next.
This expansive voyage reveals that we all owe our existence to a microscopic organism: a diatom. These photosynthetic microalgae, present in almost all water bodies, are key to keeping the oxygen in circulation on the planet. It is because of these diatoms that a salt desert in Danakil has life-giving dust that fertilises plants in the Amazon, which in turn convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
The series has been presented by Hadfield and features interviews with seven other astronauts: Jeff Hoffman, Mae Jemison, Jerry Linenger, Mike Massimino, Leland Melvin, Nicole Stott and Peggy Whitson.
Some of the best moments of the show come when these astronauts describe how life-giving phenomena are observed from outer space. They describe seeing the storms blowing dust from Africa to Brazil and the river of life flowing over the Amazon. Most fascinating is the revelation that the impact of diatoms, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, can be observed from space, in the form of a patch in the ocean that is a starkly different shade of blue-green.
One Strange Rock is a virtual as well as a cerebral delight. With the help of dexterous camerawork, the show offers viewers both a bird’s eye view of the workings of Earth and an intimate look of the granular details: we see the planet from the International Space Station thousands of miles away and zoom into microscopic phenomena, such as a flower blooming, a water droplet forming on a leaf and a speck of dust landing on the ground.
Through mind-boggling scientific facts, the show drives home a message that is decidedly spiritual: about the interconnectedness of every creature on Earth, about humankind’s place in it as just one aspect of a staggering chain, and about the perfect and delicate balance that makes our existence possible.