By Kimberly Schmidt
“Man, how lucky we are and how fortunate we are…and all you in Southern California,
how lucky you are with those mountains and beaches, just take a breath of fresh air!
We should be smiling every second of our lives. I think this series conveys that.” – Jerry Linenger
Brace yourself for this one because it aims at the heart with 3g-force. When filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan and Mother!) teams with National Geographic we sit front-row-center in the mind-bending thriller of our own life on Earth. “One Strange Rock” is the 10-episode documentary series, hosted by Will Smith and featuring eight astronauts as they reflect on their unique perspectives of earth as seen from above. It is a masterpiece of cinema, storytelling, technology, and science—one that joins the relationships between planets, animals, ecosystems, and human life into a profound, singular reality; we belong to a global system of life-giving entities on earth and there really is no place like home.
The Cosmic Perspective
It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of obligations and dramas of life to remember the fact that we—all of mankind—are on a blue planet together hanging in infinite space right at this very moment. If we look up at the blue sky and imagine that less than a hundred miles up would take us out of our atmosphere and into the black abyss of our universe. That’s not very far and yet it is the distance that separates us from the here-and-now to the what-on-earth of our human consciousness. “One Strange Rock” gives us a sneak-peek into the cosmic perspective and the implications for “hanging in space” as it relates to humankind and life on earth.
Beyond the Science
Stunning footage of earth is captured from the micro to the macro lens, exploring some of our earthling fundamentals like seasons, gravity, water, and breath. The science of each theme is matched with personal stories of astronauts, whose experience in earth’s orbit shine a light on the natural activities across the globe. Pieced together with visual and narrative cohesion, viewers will find themselves on a path towards science literacy with earth-gazing wonder and a profound sense of awe for our blue oasis. Beyond the mind-boggling science, however, the overwhelming sentiment of love is something to behold.
Delicate piano notes and celestial sounds of life are married with the image of our majestic earth, floating stoic in the black void of nothingness. Astronaunt Jeff Hoffman recalls when he first saw earth, “It’s like seeing someone’s true nature very briefly when they let their guard down and then you never see it again.” This series reads as a love letter. A real love letter…the kind that gives independently of what it receives in return. Just take it all in.
Rapid-fire shots of lush topographical imagery, sound effects, and powerful tracking shots, are just some of the ways in which Aronofsky evokes the visceral and cinematic. Some scenes are structured like a poem, where the narrative rhymes or mirrors a visual metaphor for Earth’s history. For example, the hundred-million-year cosmic storm that gave earth its supply of water is depicted not as an animated rendition but as a reenactment among children. In a slow motion montage a gang of kids storm the vibrant streets of India in an all-out water fight with neon water guns and pastel water balloons as the alleyways erupt with echoes of laughter. Like the creation of our earth, it’s a wonder that such chaos could produce something so elegant and so damn sweet.
Relatable insights told in quintessential Will Smith fashion guide us through with a play on words, puns, and punch lines, offering us a familiar hand to hold as we venture into a completely new terrain, while astronauts Nicole Stott, Chris Hadfield, Jeff Hoffman, Jerry Linenger, Mike Massimino, Mae Jemison, Leland Melvin, and Peggy Whitson, give this series a pulse. They simultaneously take the edge off the scale of information while still keeping us on the edge of our seat in suspense for more.
Interview With Jerry Linenger
Out of 7 billion humans, there are only about 500+ that have been to space. It is a rare breed that can endure the commitment needed to strap on tons of explosives, travel into the unknown, do all the stuff that astronauts do up there to help the progress of mankind (assuming some diabolical math equations on top of it all), and then return safely to tell us all about it. In black and white lighting we see the sides of their faces slightly obscured by a soft gleam of light, which accurately elevates these heroic space soldiers to spiritual heights. They, too, appear to be mysterious planets hanging in the darkness.
“I always try to express to people the majesty of our planet and things I got to view from space and it’s hard to do.” I had the privilege of speaking with Captain Jerry Linenger. According to him, this series parallels the “shift in perspective” experienced by astronauts when in orbit by showing viewers the interconnectedness of earth on a global scale.
Linenger—whose name alone comes with a collection of honors including M.D., M.S.S.M., M.P.H., PH.D., and NASA Astronaut/Mir Cosmonaut—logged 50 million miles in space and was the first American ever to undock from a space station in a Russian Soyuz capsule. He speaks fluent Russian, is an old time triathlete, and he’s the author of two books, “Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir” and “Letters from MIR: An Astronaut’s Letters to His Son,” which chronicles the power of paternal love as means of survival when faced with numerous life-threatening events, including the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft.
Appropriately titled, “Survival,” his episode covers the gamut of not just human survival but the survival of our planet and how we are linked to the elements that formed our universe. “It makes you in awe of our existence and of all the things that had to come together. Your cell has something that was created with the stars billions of years ago.” In other words, we aren’t a product of stardust…we are stardust.
As a physician as well as an astronaut, Linenger has unique insights including how humans have billions of synaptic connections in our brains comparable to the billions of stars in our galaxies. “You can go real macro and say wow this incredible system [in our universe] is just inside our brains. It’s literally mind-boggling!” He adds, “The human body is miraculous at how we lose tens of thousands of cells every day and we keep rebuilding those cells and it keeps a very stable physiology. Planet earth is the same complex animal. The ecosystems are incredible at how they buffer. Earth is a creative genius.” With all the captivating themes throughout the series, one of the most prominent messages from Linenger is, “You watch an episode and you just say ‘How lucky I am to exist.’ And maybe question what am I doing with that existence? Am I making every day count?”
He also shed light on not just mankind’s relationship to our planet but our connection to one another. When different cultures are brought into the narrative, you realize that therein lies an inherent human bond imbedded in the marvel of our planet; we’re living on Spaceship Earth together. “There’s a lot of humanity there and maybe we will break down some of the [cultural] conflict. We can go beyond how cool planet earth is and our place in the universe. I think it gets down to human beings and how we should get along with each other.”
The Case for Love
There hasn’t been a documentary about earth quite like this one. We know the planet itself is vulnerable due to human impact but we never think of the effort it goes through to keep us safe from the predator and prey of cosmic proportions—specifically the destructive solar forces of heat and light. Similar to an Aronofsky protagonist, we too are flying a little too close to the sun. But this series shows us just how much our planet protects us day in and day out and what this means for us as occupants of earth, and furthermore, as family of man. One thing is certain; even if your heart itself can be described as one strange rock, this series is hard pressed to incinerate it with love. “If people fall in love with the planet their going to take care of the planet,” says Linenger, “give way to appreciation and it will be a natural reaction to protect it.”
“One Strange Rock” premieres Monday March 26 on National Geographic.
VFX enhanced Earth view from the International Space Station. (credit: NASA)
Will Smith and Executive Producer Darren Aronofsky during production. (credit: National Geographic/Matt Frost)