Produced by and broadcast (with much fanfare) on The Discovery Channel, Alien Planet uses speculative science and slick CGI to create a world of could-be creatures on a world far, far away. The planet is Darwin IV, and it's there that we hope to send a massive, unmanned probe (called Von Braun) that's loaded with several smaller probes. The land-roving robots, known as "Leo" (as in Da Vinci) and "Ike" (as in Newton), will be dispatched and sent on a variety of planet-side surveys.
And, narratively speaking, that's pretty much all of what Alien Planet has to offer: The adorably anthropomorphized Leo and Ike as they wander Darwin IV and come in contact with a variety of bizarre beasties. Each probe contains its own set of mini-sensors, which include flying camera discs and spider-like sample-collectors, which enable Leo and Ike to make contact with the dino-like arrow-tongues, the docile-yet-speedy gyro-sprinters, bat-like trunk-suckers, the lithe and vicious daggerists, the monumentally huge grovebacks, and the astonishing aquatic creatures known as sea-striders ... and many more. Halfway through this documentary of interstellar speculation comes a plot "twist" when one of the probes go down; basically, it's just a small effort to bring something like a "plot" to the proceedings.
Filmmaker George Lucas, paleontologists Jack Horner & James Kirkland, scientist James Horvath, physicists Michio Kaku & Stephen Hawking, NASA astrobiologist Victoria Meadows, spacecraft architect Randy Pollock, and biologist Curtis Clark drop in amongst the alien landscapes to share their thoughts and perspectives on the supposed life-forms that will be found on Darwin IV -- all of which are pretty damn wild.
Alien Planet is based on a book called "Expedition" by Wayne Barlowe, in which an artist records his experiences on a 2368 mission to Darwin IV -- which means we probably aren't getting any sort of "hard science" -- but a series of "educated guesses" that are just too outlandish to accept, yet too darn nifty to ignore. But taken as a sort of "What If?" peek into what beasts just might live on a planet six light-years away, Alien Planet is more than cool enough to keep the sci-fi geeks (like me) entertained.
Narrated in very cool style by actor John C. McGinley, Alien Planet looks sort of like Halo meets National Geographic. And, at the very least, the movie would certainly work as a party-time conversation piece. Turn the volume down when you have a room full of drinkers, and Alien Planet becomes a strangely hypnotic curiosity indeed.
The CG animation is consistently crisp and beautiful, thereby allowing Alien Planet to become just as entertaining without the technical jargon as it is with. You may find yourself scoffing at this sort of speculative science, but odds are you'll also be strangely moved by the possibilities that are put on display here. The creatures of Darwin IV might be as realistic as your average Star Wars casting call, but that won't stop the science fiction buffs from having a wide-eyed field day with this hyper-fantastic menagerie.
Video: The film is presented in its original widescreen (1.78:1, non-anamorphic) format, and the picture quality is pretty damn dazzling. It's obvious that a lot of time and animation effort went into Alien Planet, and it's brought home via DVD in exceedingly fine visual form.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 all the way, which means the narration, the interview segments, and the freakishly weird sound effects pump through your speakers with crystal clarity. (Turn it up loud!)
Extras: Although the only extra feature is a series of extended interview segments, there's a whole lot of extra topics included!
Stephen Hawking - Alien Life (1:50)
Jim Garvin - Punctuated Equilibrium (1:44), Finger Prints of Life (2:17), The Quest for Life (2:00), Would We Recgonize Complex Life? (2:39), Thinking of Different Kinds of Life (2:05), A Worthy Quest (1:41), Multi-Generational Projects (2:01), Looking for Earth-Like Planets (1:49), Martian Rocks on Earth (1:39)
Jack Horner - Paleontologists Deal With Aliens (0:54), We Are "Brain" Centric (1:20), Expect the Unexpected (1:42), Discovering the Color of Dinosaurs (1:12), Rules For Life (1:09), Searching For Life (1:00), The Complexity of Life (1:19), How We Would Look For Life On Other Planets (0:54), The Planet Effects Evolution (0:59), How Best to Search For Life (0:50)
Michio Kaku - Human Identity Crises (0:50), Water is the Mixing Bowl of Life (0:56), Discovering Microbial Life (1:08), What's In It For Me? (1:02), Goldilocks Zones (0:54), Terrestrial Planet Finder 2014 (1:06), Defining Intelligence (0:53), Likelihood of Life As We Know It (0:59), What Might Aliens Look Like? (1:53), Would We Recognize a Galactic Civilization? (1:40), Don't Even Need Sun For Life (1:22)
You'll also find a trailer for Full Throttle, which you should find quite exciting if motorcycles are something you enjoy.
Try not to think too hard on questions like "Oh, come on, how could anybody even pretend to know what creatures live on an uncharted planet over 6 light-years away?!?" and odds are you'll have a geeky good time with Alien Planet. It's not much more than a big, flashy "guesstimate" after all's said and done, but it's one delivered in a smart, slick, and consistently fascinating fashion. (Plus the alien monsters are really freaking cool.)