Karl Puschmann: The terrifying reality of Netflix’s Alien Worlds
Is there life on Mars? Or, for that matter, anywhere further afield?
Here on earth we tend to get wrapped up in all our god-awful small affairs. But if you pause for a second, take a quiet look up into the night sky and gaze deep into the cosmic soup then the startling insignificance of it all hits you with the devastating force of a wayward asteroid hurtling out of space, where it belongs, and towards the ground, where it most definitely does not.
I guess this is why most people tend to avoid star gazing too often, if at all.
“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is,” wrote the brilliantly funny author Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
That passage is funny because it’s true. Space is too big for our small minds to comprehend. I googled ‘how big is space’ and my brain practically melted and started oozing out my ears as I struggled to understand the answer.
So instead I flicked on Netflix’s new documentary series Alien Worlds, a show that takes a fact-based approach to its fiction of imagining what life is out there in the cosmos.
“There are countless planets throughout the universe,” narrator Sophie Okonedo says to open the series, “If life exists on only a fraction of them, then the universe must be alive.”
Scientists believe that there’s a planet for every star in the universe. Which means – and this will hurt your brain, for which I apologise – there’s over a million billion trillion planets out there.
This sounds like a number straight out of the playground, but I assure you the finest minds in our scientific community came up with it. There’s more planets in space then there are grains of sand on earth.
It sounds fanciful, ridiculous, impossible, but we’re practically surrounded by the things. Over 4000 planets have been discovered sitting just outside our immediate solar system. And, more are being found all the time.
This means, friends, that aliens are most definitely out there. Do they come in peace? Do they want to be taken to our leader? Or are they content to continue punking us with their pointless monoliths, like they’re some kind of intergalactic Ashton Kutcher?
I was hoping Alien Worlds would take a stab at answering these most concerning of questions. Instead it’s content to show us fantastical, but basic, creatures fighting for survival on what are essentially terrible versions of our own earth.
Alien Worlds presents its alien worlds as a nature documentary. The CGI is really good and they do an excellent job of explaining how by applying the rules of life on earth to the rest of the universe they’ve been able to imagine what’s living out there. Throughout they equate what we’re seeing with familiar creatures, like majestic falcons, fearsome crocodiles and horny rhinoceros beetles.
The first planet we visit is Atlas, a world where its heavy gravity and dense atmosphere allows big peaceful critters called skygrazers, sort of shell-less fishy turtle things, to spend their lives gliding through the sky, gulping up seeds that float into the air.
But no one wants to watch the equivalent of space cows so soon enough a swarm of predatory insect-like aliens launch into the air. These things looked like little hot air balloons of death, with horrifyingly toothy mouths and two awful, spindly claws. They attack by floating up above the skygrazers, expelling the gas from their bulbous air sac and dive bombing onto their prey.
Fortunately, the skygrazer escapes the onslaught but is immediately set upon by two randy males whose sense of timing for a romantic liaison is deeply flawed.
Nevertheless, life finds a way and we skip forward a bit to see her unable to lift off again and dying on the planet while her cute little babies scuttle around her.
We then immediately see those cute little babies being steamrolled by spectacularly gross, pinky mounds of boneless terror. These things are truly horrific, a flabby shapeless mass with spiky protrusions covered in dead black eyes, tumbling over itself as its envelops its prey before dissolving and consuming it. Truly, nightmare material.
“On Atlas,” the narrator intones solemnly, “survival is a game of chance.”
Not a good chance either. The episode ends with a storm of asteroids slamming into the ground to wipe everything out except those disgusting misshapen balls of death.
As the credits rolled I was reminded of another quote that’s stuck with me. One more frightening than funny.
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not,” sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke said.
“Both,” he correctly mused, “are equally terrifying.”
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