By most metrics, Will Smith has achieved it all. As one of the world’s biggest movie stars, he enjoys a level of celebrity, wealth, and privilege that most of us can scarcely imagine. His role in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, one of TV’s most beloved series, endeared him to millions. And if that weren’t enough, his musical career spawned a number of hits, including “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It,” “Summertime,” and the iconic (for a certain age group, anyway) “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
But in the trailer for National Geographic’s Welcome to Earth, Smith makes a confession: “I’ve never climbed a mountain. Never swum in a lake. I was in a cave… once. I’m beginning to think that I might be missing something.”
So Smith teamed up with a group of scientists and explorers to push himself — to see and do things that he’s never seen or done before. Climb down into the bowels of a volcano. Descend into the darkest ocean depths. Travel across the Serengeti to witness a wildebeest migration. Kayak down some treacherous rapids in Iceland. Smith’s game for everything, no matter how foolhardy it seems, and he brings us along for the ride with all of the charisma, charm, and humor that you’d expect from Will Smith.
The series’ first episode immediately sets the tone. It begins with Smith pushing himself (with a death-defying experience involving an active volcano) and in the process, uncovering something incredible (an entire sonic world that we can’t hear, only feel). Later in that same episode, we watch scientists slowly wind their way through a cave in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains in pursuit of absolute silence so that they can record the sounds of the moon’s gravitational effect on the Earth.
On a side note, I often found Smith’s fellow explorers just as engaging as Smith himself. Many of them have fascinating stories, such as mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, who guides Smith down into the volcano despite being blind, or Albert Lin, whose prosthetic leg doesn’t prevent him from exploring the world’s furthest reaches. Their stories serve only to make Welcome to Earth all the more inspiring.
If there’s an over-arching theme to Welcome to Earth, it’s bearing witness to sights and sounds that would otherwise be impossible to experience, to the secret and hidden truths of our planet. (For instance, did you know that the moon’s gravitational pull causes New York City to rise and fall 14 inches, twice a day? I didn’t, not until I watched Welcome to Earth.)
It’s one thing to travel to an exotic location (say, 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface or the middle of the Namibia Desert). It’s quite another to have the ability, thanks to cutting-edge technology that would’ve been inconceivable not too long ago, to see vibrant, unimaginable colors just floating there in the midst of the dark, a lizard’s tongue snag lunch in the blink of an eye, or a stunning visualization of the effects of wind and water on the landscape.
At one point, Smith asks, “How did I not know that this was in the world?” You can hear the humility and awe in his voice. Such emotions are the appropriate human response when confronted with nature’s majesty. Or as the psalmist David put it, so long ago, “When I look at… the work of your fingers… what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).
Good nature documentaries like Welcome to Earth serve as a necessary reminder that we are but divinely-appointed stewards of creation. We are not its masters. And indeed, its ancient and primal rhythms — the migration of wildebeests, the breeding habits of sea turtles, the unceasing processes of erosion, the moon’s gravitational pull — will go on with or without us because they are not for us. Given our human-centric view of things, that’s humbling… and a little aggravating. Then again, Jesus Himself reminded us that if human beings, who have been created in the image of God, fail to acknowledge their creator, then the stones will always still cry out.
It might be tempting to see Welcome to Earth — the series’ title was undoubtedly inspired by Smith’s cheeky catchphrase in the sci-fi classic Independence Day — as something akin to wish fulfillment for Smith, especially when he gets to face his fears or realize a childhood dream with the help of seasoned explorers (and an expert production crew led by director/producer Darren Aronofsky). I suspect that none of this would’ve been possible were it not for Smith’s fame and celebrity.
But methinks that might be too cynical of a take, especially when compared to the wonders on display in the series’ six episodes. Perhaps a better way to approach Welcome to Earth would be to hold it up as an example of fame, celebrity, and privilege — all of which are so easily and often abused — used rightly. Not for one’s own comfort and aggrandizement, but rather, to uplift, enlighten, and enrich the lives of countless others. In other words, I wouldn’t mind seeing more celebrities follow in Smith’s footsteps, and use their fame and wealth to unlock knowledge and wonders for the rest of us. (Suffice to say, I’ll be watching the upcoming Limitless, in which Chris Hemsworth, aka, MCU’s Thor, explores the limits of longevity and the human body.)
What’s more, I’d love to watch a follow-up episode that caught up with Smith six months or a year after filming Welcome to Earth. How would he say his experiences changed him as a husband, father, actor, or celebrity? What was it like coming back home, or getting back to work on a movie set, after seeing and experiencing so many wonders firsthand? Did it cause him to reevaluate his life and career, and if so, in what ways? (For what it’s worth, Smith has called his experiences on Welcome to Earth “the deepest and greatest pleasure of my life.”)
That all might be a bit too personal, and Lord knows the last thing our culture needs is even more intimate details from a celebrity’s life. But I know that simply watching Welcome to Earth has changed me for the better, and given me a deeper appreciation for my place in creation. I hope that’s even truer for Will Smith.
Welcome to Earth is currently streaming on Disney+. Watch the trailer below.