When these breathtaking views of our planet begin to fill the domed screen of an IMAX theater, filmed at the International Space Station by astronauts living there, it is difficult not to be moved. (Although the young students all around me in the theater, at Stockholm’s Natural History Museum, had no trouble not being moved. At lunch, some of them confessed to falling asleep.)
“A Beautiful Planet” begins with a simulated faster-than-light trip into the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of billions of stars, which underscores the absolutely non-special status of the star we know as the Sun.
But somehow, all this stellar ordinariness only enhances the planetary uniqueness of Earth — covered with glittering water and air, just warm enough for life, protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field, which reveals itself in the shimmering green curtain of the northern lights.
Familiar and unfamiliar places float by — Paris, Florida, massive lightning storms over the Congo, the enormity of the ocean, Arctic icescapes, great river deltas — and the message digs deeper and deeper into your consciousness: this planet is alive. We are part of that life.
By the end of the film, the astronauts whose pictures and voices have filled one’s head and heart have begun to speculate about whether another “Goldilocks Planet” (a planet where everything is “just right”) might host life as we know it, or at least something similar. Of course, given the vastness of space, that is very statistically probable.
But without real (as opposed to simulated) faster-than-light travel, we are not likely to find out. And until then, there is only Earth — Gaia — our spaceship, our extraordinarily beautiful home, captured in all its glory in this wonderful film.