Call it 'Walking With Aliens' and you've got the gist of Alien Planet. Though I was skeptical at first, this woozy sci-fi fantasia eventually roped me in. Conceptually, it's all academic - we really have no idea what alien life might look or act like - but the producers of this Discovery Channel film have done an excellent job of coming up with, you'll pardon my language, some bizarre shit to populate their plausible planetary creation, Darwin IV. Nerds, neophytes, and the non-interested alike should all end up enjoying this episodic look at another world.
As with similar CGI-based documentaries of long gone historical beasts, Alien Planet mixes full-CG environments with real-life-expert interview sequences. Stephen Hawking and others speak on the possibilities of alien life with measured enthusiasm while referring to all the creatures on Darwin IV as if they actually exist, injecting both credibility and believability to the weird scenes dominating the movie. You might even become a bit emotionally invested in the proceedings, as ever-popular anthropomorphic droids are first sent to investigate the planet's surface. (You didn't think we'd send real people did you?) You might not cry like I do at the end of Silent Running, but you just might cheer as these fantastic machines finally encounter bloated sacs of methane floating around.
And those sacs, of course, are what this feature is all about. Yes, there are enough bits of awesome tech and super-science floating about to prick up the ears of budding scientists, but largely, we're watching to see what 'real' aliens are going to be like. Do we want them to be humanoids with different colored skin and strange foreheads, or do we want them to be 70-foot tall, Lovecraftian flesh-pillars endlessly trudging about on a sea of goo? Well? Though anointed with traits of terrestrial predators - don't worry, scientific reasoning is given for this conceit - these creatures are far from Star Trek facsimiles.
Aside from dealing with prosaic nomenclature, (most of the aliens have names like groveback and stingertail) the only complaint I can muster is that a lot of these creatures appear to be built on the CG backs of pre-existing dinosaur modeling. These aliens are mainly bipedal (but with weird-ass heads) and run around undeveloped landscapes like Allosauruses. Fortunately there are many more of the freaky-deaky varieties to keep you wholly off balance. And even when you can smell a velociraptor hiding inside, the fact that these aliens generally eschew recognizable faces for oddly shaped bony protrusions keeps you firmly in orbit.
Other than for learning about probabilities for alien life, Alien Planet is something of a lark. Will alien life forms even be recognizable to us, or will everything just be a variation on an earthly theme? Who knows? The scientists interviewed in the making of this documentary have plenty of good educated guesses, which when animated in high-quality CGI, turn out to be highly entertaining.
Sporting good quality CGI and lush, spacey colors, this 1.78:1 widescreen ratio presentation, enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs, delivers an otherworldly and beautiful viewing experience. The image is sharp and clear, with no compression artifacts to speak of, and though there's sort of a twilight-dim quality to many of the scenes on Darwin IV it just adds to the atmosphere.
English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Audio is mixed nicely and everything you'd wish to hear clearly is there for you. Alien sounds are intriguing and rendered creatively, though the overall stereo experience seems fairly average.
No extras are included other than English SDH Subtitles. Though the program presented is the same, this reissue of the 2005 DVD is missing the 5.1 Mix and any previous extras.
As a bare bones reissue of the previous 2005 DVD release, this Alien Planet can only be seen as an attempt to cash in on the release of Avatar. At that, you still get real fun, plausible pseudo-science, and great-looking CGI (for the time). As we journey to a distant planet to gape at some really weird beasties, all sorts of scientists talk about them as if they were real. When Stephen Hawking lends credence to your animated tentacled gasbags, you're in for nerds-and-normals-pleasing thrills. Good for more than one late-night watch, it might be worth it to look for the slightly beefier but out-of-print 2005 release, but as a current standalone this still merits a cautious Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
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