In ‘Welcome to Earth,’ Will Smith Conquers His Adventure Anxiety
The actor’s nature show, now streaming on Disney+, offers a welcome update to a familiar format
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While watching Welcome to Earth, the new National Geographic series on Disney+, I couldn’t stop thinking, There are a lot of awkward moments in here! The premise is glamorous: Will Smith travels the world and shares adventures with explorers and scientists at the top of their game, resulting in beautiful footage that’s edited to within an inch of its life for a jam-packed 30-minute experience. So why did the producers leave in so many uncomfortable silences? You could make a supercut of guides telling Smith about the scary thing he’s about to do, while ominous music plays and the camera pointedly hovers on his face as he stares into the void. By the end of the first episode, though, I was rooting for whoever was playing up these moments, and for Will Smith, who I’d like to think enthusiastically signed off on the idea. What could have been just a vanity project reveals itself to be a surprisingly honest exploration of the struggle to be a braver person.
Of course, it’s also good old-fashioned educational adventure TV. Each of the six episodes revolves around a broad theme, like scents or swarms, and Smith takes a trip with a specialist for the marquee scenes in each episode. In “The Silent Roar,” about sounds that aren’t audible to most humans, Smith explores an active volcano with volcanologist Jeffrey Johnson and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind and senses sound below the frequency that most people can hear. (“So you feel comfortable going in there, and you would take your students or anything in there?” Smith asks Johnson as casually as he can.) Woven throughout each episode are side journeys in which we join other photographers, National Geographic ambassadors, or local residents to explore phenomena related to each episode’s theme, like earth tides, moonbows, and the exploding hammer festival in San Juan de la Vega, Mexico.
Welcome to Earth manages to surprise in its capacity as a nature-expedition show. (Did you know that New York City can move up and down as much as 14 inches a day?) But overall the show seems less interested in animals and scientific phenomena than in the charismatic adventurers who make up its cast. There are regular appearances, for instance, by Trinidadian marine biologist Diva Amon, who free dives and visits deep oceans around the world, and polar explorer Dwayne Fields, who was the first Black Briton to reach the North Pole. Many of the other guest explorers also have something unusual in common: they’ve had a traumatic experience that could have made it difficult to continue their adventures, but nevertheless found a way to keep pursuing their curiosity. Marine biologist Melissa Márquez, who was attacked by a crocodile, still explores waterways on a glass-bottom canoe. Scientist Albert Lin, who shows Smith all kinds of fancy gear on their adventure in Namibia, had one of his legs amputated after a car accident. “Technology has helped me be able to define my own limitations,” he says. “In a strange way I don’t actually feel like I’ve lost anything, I actually feel like I’ve gained.”
As a host, Smith is a perfect audience stand-in, never failing to voice his admiration for his guides or gape at a deep-sea jellyfish the way anyone would if they were dropped directly into a nature documentary. He seems to have a lot of fun checking off a lifetime’s worth of bucket list items, from diving 3,000 feet beneath the sea to paddling the recently-discovered Stuðlagil canyon in Iceland. And dad jokes abound—“We are detached [from the boat],” he says from a submarine. “But not emotionally. Emotionally I’m still very attached.” But the show is clearly seeking a more meaningful reason to put him through these experiences. The series opens with Smith invoking the words of his grandmother, who said the best things in life exist on the other side of fear. He returns to this theme repeatedly, sharing his previously unrealized longing to be an explorer—in the second episode he confesses to never having swum in a lake, climbed a mountain, or slept in a tent. “A large part of the reason why I live my life the way I do today is because I was fearful as a child,” he says in the fear-themed final episode, directed by Darren Aronofsky.
None of these insights is particularly original or dramatic, but the point isn’t only that a world-famous movie star hasn’t done things that many people also haven’t done. It’s that even with all of the best resources at hand, he still reacts with all the stumbling, self-deprecating jokes, nervous silences, and thousand-yard stares that any of us might recognize from our first time doing something out of our comfort zone. As their submarine descends into the ocean, Amon asks Smith with genuine surprise if he’s actually nervous. “Just a little bit. It’ll be fine though,” Smith says, much too quickly.
The documentary chooses to spend most of its time celebrating the people who pursue adventure despite having first-hand knowledge that things can go wrong.
These moments add a much-needed authenticity to a show that might otherwise be overstuffed with shiny distractions like drones, fancy high-speed cameras, and joy rides over the dunes of the Namib Desert. Beyond that, though, the show seems like a more graceful extension of Smith’s recent personal project to become more open about his life with the public. This has resulted in many of us learning way more than we ever wanted to know about him. A YouTube show in which he aimed to lose 20 pounds in 20 weeks ended up feeling sad (even Will Smith still has to deal with diet culture?), and he shared so many specifics on his marriage in interviews that it inspired articles like “Okay, If I Read Another Headline About Will Smith’s Sex Life I’m Going to Scream.” But as Elamin Abdelmahmoud explains particularly well in Buzzfeed News, most stars of Smith’s generation, himself included, have maintained their fame with an air of unattainability—staying off social media, granting limited interviews, and not sharing many personal confessions. But younger actors today build a fan base by being (sort of) open books, aiming for polished relatability and controlled transparency. “A byproduct of ’90s celebrity culture, [Smith] is attempting something few men of his generation of stars have done: reinventing himself publicly, to align with the contemporary expectations of celebrity,” Abdelmahmoud writes.
Welcome to Earth contributes to that project with a clean narrative arc about Smith facing his fears and insecurities. And it wouldn’t have stood out from the glut of stunning David Attenborough films or celebrity-narrated nature documentaries if it hadn’t nailed that element. This is to Smith’s credit, too; he’s a man used to getting gawked at, but it seems like we get to see moments in which the mask slips and we’re just watching him go through it. (“How’s it feeling?” Fields asks as they traverse a glacier in Iceland. “You know exactly how it’s feeling,” Smith replies. “Scary as hell!”) Unlike turning his fitness plans into a sort of reality show, this doesn’t feel like a put-on or an embarrassing thing Smith must endure to prove he’s a human with real problems. The documentary chooses to spend most of its time celebrating the people who pursue adventure despite having first-hand knowledge that things can go wrong—along with beginners like Smith who give it a try, knowing the process will likely be a little bit embarrassing. By the end of the show, Smith seems just as amazed at the physical feats he’s willingly gone through as he is by the hidden forces of nature he’s witnessed. Glamorous as the show may be, it captures something any viewer might recognize in themselves: that exhilarating feeling of possibility after discovering you can do things that once felt totally undoable.