[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Where to Watch ‘Welcome to Earth’: Disney+
I don’t blame Will Smith for being hesitant to walk down into an active volcano. He’s not the first household name to lead a nature show as a celebrity tour guide, but he might be the one who looks like he’s come closest to turning around and walking right back to base camp.
Even before you get to the staggering views of natural phenomena peppered throughout each of the six “Welcome to Earth” episodes, there’s a push-pull dynamic to how Smith works as the narrator of this project. In the studio, beaming as he stares right down the camera barrel just as he did on “One Strange Rock,” he’s got his movie star charisma dialed up to full. He’s telling stories about his family or some notable gaps in his childhood experiences. He’s cool and composed.
So when “Welcome to Earth” hops to Smith having to actually confront what he claims he wants to see (or hear or feel or otherwise soak in), the show mines some legitimate tension in the process. His is a notably different style of trepidation than other on-camera-hosted shows where the potential for danger is a neat little halo that barely extends beyond the edges of the frame. There’s awkwardness as Smith slowly rappels down the side of a caldera or tries to wedge himself into a three-person pod plumbing the pitch-black depths of the ocean.
Some of the most captivating nature documentaries arrive like an exquisitely-cut gem, precise and perfect objects that revel in the world’s majesty. “Welcome to Earth” definitely has its share of those moments, including one very early lean over the edge into the heart of that magma-churning volcano. Yet, amongst those sequences aiming at awe are some looser, shaggier stretches. If something like “Planet Earth” has an internal heartbeat that’s easy to sync with, the rhythm guiding “Welcome to Earth” has a little more irregularity to it. You see more of the pathway between Point A and Point B because the final product hasn’t already arrived fully formed.
In the process, anyone watching gets a slightly more unprotected insight into the process of putting a show like this together. There’s less of an all-consuming effort to hide every camera or disguise any transition. “Welcome to Earth” still flows with the confidence and efficiency of a series handsomely assembled, but foregrounding Smith and the various groups of explorers guiding the way helps to draw an even bigger contrast between visitors and the worlds they’re entering into.
Despite having that looser feel, with “Welcome to Earth” being as elegantly composed as it is, there are few things here that happen by accident. (One particular wardrobe choice in the season’s second episode — and Smith’s momentary peeling back the curtain on that side of the production — is a notable example.) I imagine it’s hard for someone with as much on-camera experience as Smith to truly relinquish the certain amount of control you have as an actor over your own actions and reactions, ceding all those to the bioluminescent plankton or igneous chunks floating somewhere near your head. If he can give himself over to all of this, though, it makes it a lot easier for any viewer to follow.
Regardless of how much Smith plays a part in “Welcome to Earth,” the show’s real trick is seizing on our collective response to the inexplicable when it comes to a nature doc like this one. There’s certainly an instinct to compare. (How much of the underlying hook of any of these shows is “You’ve never seen anything like this before”…?) There’s that cognitive dissonance of not being able to fully comprehend that these places or creatures or sensations happen on the planet we’re currently on. Who better, then, to be at the head of this process than someone who’s not only been a part of a number of those invented worlds and who responds in the exact same way? Smith saying that something is “weird as hell” makes him somehow more relatable than any dozens of Instagram Live sessions could.
A lot of these swirling ideas come to a point in the season’s third episode. Trying to observe a group of wildebeests mid-migration, the crew kills every light on their minimal roving set. When the night vision goggles flip on a few seconds later, it’s almost impossible to process that what you’re seeing isn’t part of some elaborate reconstruction. Robbed of the interplay between natural light and shadow, you see a pair of faces that don’t move or reflect in an immediate recognizable way. So as much as “Welcome to Earth” has those heavy doses of majesty, it’s also worth watching for how fundamentally it jars you from your perception of the world.