Don't look for any Earth-shaking conclusions. Just enjoy the ride.

James Plath's picture

"Alien Planet," based on the book "Expedition," by Wayne D. Barlow, sounds so far out that it's hard to take seriously. That is, until you see the parade of star witnesses that the defense calls to the stand.

"We think that other worlds exist," says NASA's Chief Scientist, Dr. James Garvin. "We know of hundreds of other planetary systems right now, and that may be the tip of the iceberg."

Garvin is joined by experts in all fields, including renowned physicist Michio Kaku (author of "Parallel Worlds"), who tells us that 2014 is when new vistas might open. "That's the magic year the terrestrial planet finder goes into orbit with the explicit purpose of locating up to 500 other Earth-like planets."

"It isn't conceivable, really, that there would not be life," adds "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. "Is it intelligent? I don't know."

But before you start looking forward to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," you might think about staying in your house until things settle down. A biologist from California Polytechnic concludes that, given the evolution of species on this planet, any intelligent life forms in space would most likely "be descended from predators."

The best quote from this Discovery Channel production was one that never made it onto the TV show. In the extras, an outtake from Stephen Hawking shows the genius determining that "Intelligent life must be very rare, or we would have been visited." He scoffs (in a nice way) at people who claim to have been visited by aliens, adding, "Any visit by aliens would be very obvious and probably very unpleasant, like in the movie 'Independence Day.' If we want to find advanced intelligent life, our best bet is to listen for radio signals."

Of course, one reason that quote was dropped is that it runs slightly counter to the thrust of "Alien Planet," which builds on our current scientific knowledge to speculate how a first probing of another planet with life might go. Viewers take a speculative journey to an imaginary planet they're calling Darwin IV, with computer graphics by Meteor Studios of Montreal virtually illustrating the combined theories of the many experts that director Pierre de Lespinois has assembled. They include a paleontologist from Montana State University, the principal investigator from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, a space instrumentation system architect, a space-oriented entrepreneur, the director of Robotic Systems Laboratory, a University of Utah geologist, and a second paleontologist.

What the experts do is to lend credence to this CGI sci-fi adventure, which highlights fantastic creatures that should more than entertain young people and fans of fantasy, science fiction, and space exploration. Though some of the effects look surreal—as with the giant molds that might remind you of the artificial wonders of Oz—the space sequences look very believable and the CGI creatures are quite well done.

John C. McGinley narrates the story of the Von Braun, a space vehicle the size of a nuclear attack submarine that can travel at 37,000 miles per second, or 20 percent of the speed of light. It's easy to become involved in the speculative narrative when you know that the facts and figures come from men and women of science, and that any speculations are projections based on observable laws of physics, chemistry, and geological and biological evolution. The Von Braun's target is the Darwin IV, the fourth planet in the binary system dubbed Darwin. Though the journey's the thing, there are plenty of tidbits strewn along the way, such as a reminder that Einstein said there was an ultimate speed limit in the universe. We're told that even traveling at 20 percent of the speed of light, it would take 42 years for the Von Braun to reach its target. And even at the speed of light, transmissions from the Von Braun would take 6 1/2 years to reach earth—so basically, any probe that far into unknown space would be on its own.

Based on their scientific speculations, the experts confirm the possibility that a planet like Darwin IV could have mountain ranges, weather systems, and a small aquifer-fed sea and surface water supply which would be capable of sustaining life similar to that which evolved on Earth during prehistoric times.

Dinosaur-loving kids will perk up when the speculative creatures start appearing, as probes from the Von Braun dubbed Leo (after Leonardo DiVinci), Newton (after Isaac, not Fig), and Balboa (after the Spanish explorer) try to document life on the planet. They get help from robotic, spider-like sub-probes, which look almost as fantastic as the creatures. And what life do they project for Darwin IV? How about an Arrowtongue, a two-legged creature with an arrow-shaped head as well? Or a Gyrosprinter, a two-legged vegetarian that can turn on a dime and has a head that's shaped like a cylinder. Or Bladderhorns, with their bioluminescent antlers, and Forest Vampires and Daggerwrists, with their alien-looking heads? Or how about Skewers, 50-foot winged aerial hunters that look like robotic pterodactyls but spew methane gas that gives them jet-like power? What about a Groveback—a gigantic creature five stories high that looks like part of the land, and grows trees on its back? There's a "Future is Wild" sense of playfulness in these creatures that could have evolved differently in a parallel universe.

The experts have given Darwin IV a dense, humid atmosphere and a lower gravity than on Earth, and in the 130+ day mission (we get computer print-outs on the screen that keep us apprised of what day it is). Don't look for any Earth-shaking conclusions. Just enjoy the ride.

Video: The picture quality, mastered in High Definition, is very good, with rich colors that lend a surreal atmosphere to these alien explorations and an aspect ratio of 1.78 on anamorphic widescreen.

Audio: The sound is also excellent—English Dolby Digital 5.1 with closed captioning.

Extras: The extras are really unused clips from interviews with Hawking, Garvin, Kaku, and paleontologist Jack Horner. Hawking talks about alien life, while we hear Garvin on punctuated equilibrium, fingerprints of life, multi-generational projects, Martian rocks on Earth, and the search for Earth-like planets. Horner shares his take on aliens, anticipating the color of dinosaurs, the "rules" for life, and how a planet effects evolution, while Kaku talks about microbial life, "Goldilocks zones," defining intelligence, and speculates whether sunlight is required for life and what aliens might look like.

Bottom Line: If you're into space or dinosaurs and appreciate speculation about possible life forms on other planets, "Alien Planet" provides a surprisingly entertaining and intelligent fantasy ride in search of other life forms in space. But if you consider the quotes from experts that weren't included and read between the lines, it's even more revealing.


Film Value