January 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Jay Murali delves into the pros and cons of Netflix’s visions of extra-terrestrial life

Jay Murali
04/01/2021

Netflix’s latest foray into the obscure realm of speculative scientific documentaries is one which aims to bring to viewers worlds beyond our own, fascinating and thought-provoking in their oddity. Having watched the four-episode series in a single session, I found the experience to be somewhat lacklustre, but enjoyable nonetheless and a pleasant way to spend a few hours this holiday season.

Following up on the great speculative biology documentaries of the mid- to late-2000s, like Alien Planet and The Future is Wild, this series aims to explore some of the great questions of our age: is there life beyond Earth, and if so, what would it be like? Alien Worlds presents four hypothetical inhabited exoplanets teeming with life, all of which with distinct species, environments, and ideas to delve into. Each episode focuses on one of these planets, interspersing top-notch CGI depictions of alien life with footage of our own planet. On both sides the organisms display incredible behaviours and features while researchers and experts weigh in on the big questions plaguing astrobiology.

While technically very impressive, and as much as I found the Earth segments engaging, I could not help but find myself wanting to spend more time on each of these exoplanets. The broken-up nature of the four episodes, with each rapidly tennis-balling between Earth and the planet in question, left me somewhat frustrated as every time something intriguing happened off-world, the camera panned right back down to Earth, cutting short the generated momentum. The lives of the alien creatures presented were gripping and engaging, but there was simply not enough time spent exploring them for myself as a viewer to form any sort of attachment.

alien creature eating a cactus-like plant
Alien Flora and Fauna. Image via Netflix

Speaking of the creatures as a central point of the series, the biologist in me spent a lot of time considering these interpretations of alien life. The creatures themselves were fantastically designed, if perhaps a little tame for my tastes. While visually interesting, they remain just a bit too familiar for a series about alien life – almost as if the designers were told to hold back from going as weird as they could have, to keep the creatures just marketable enough. The flora, on the other hand, was much more of a mixed bag – some designs were incredible and appropriately bizarre, but some were simply carbon copies of Earth foliage, like ferns and pines, which I personally found to be an unusual choice. All in all, I enjoyed watching these extra-terrestrial beings in their ecosystems, and I must commend the team behind their designs. However, if I had a single critique to add for future design work, it would be to loosen any Earthly shackles and commit fully to presenting us with the bizarre and esoteric.

This potential not being fully explored is what truly causes Alien Worlds to fall a little short of being great. The segments on Earth were excellent and I enjoyed the incredible landscape photography and exploration of extreme environments and fauna, but they were in too jarring a position within the larger narratives. These stories would benefit from more attention and a more cohesive approach, with more focus being placed on the exoplanets and aliens themselves. With these issues addressed, Alien Worlds would be an excellent, captivating series and as a fan of the speculative evolution genre, I am rooting for this series more than most. There is much to explore and with some work, future episodes could truly bring something wildly unique to the table.

Alien Worlds is available to watch on Netflix

https://www.netflix.com/title/80221410