Our Universe, a six-part nature narrated by Morgan Freeman, takes a look at how the formation of the universe, and the elements that make up our solar system specifically, created this planet that we live on, full of millions of different life forms, that have evolved over millions and billions of years. It sounds immense in scope, but creators Naomi Austin, Stephen Cooter and Alice Jones couch these universal concepts, represented by spectacular CGI special effects, with the stories of individual animals in their native habitats.
Opening Shot: We see closeups of various animals. Narrator Morgan Freeman intones, “In the lives of every creature on Earth are echoes of events that occurred a long, long time ago.”
The Gist: In the first episode, the creation and power of our sun is discussed; graphics show the explosions that occur on the surface that equal the power of millions of atomic blasts, then tunnels deep inside the core to show nuclear fission of the atoms banging around there.
On earth, we see a cheetah on the Serengeti during the dry season, trying to hunt to feed her two cubs. Food is scarce, and while the adult cheetah can go days without food, the cubs can only survive a day or two. Without the power of the sun, though, the plains wouldn’t be able to go through the rebirth that happens when the dry season ends and grass and other plant life returns to the area; with the grass come herds of wildebeest looking for places to graze, giving the cheetah ample opportunities to feed herself and her cubs… if the cubs haven’t been taken away by hungry lions or hyenas in the meantime.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Name a nature show on Netflix and Our Universe will feel similar to that. It’s like Our Planet mixed with a wide-ranging, Freeman-narrated series like The Story Of God.
Our Take: While the photography is spectacular, the special effects are amazing, and the narration has the usual gravity that Freeman brings to such projects, it feels like Our Universe strains to tie its massive concepts down to the nature footage that it shows in each episode. Other episodes of the season will examine such as the cosmic clock, the changing of the seasons, the elements that make up all matter on the planet, and the miracles of water and gravity. Each massive concept is seen through the story of one particular species: A sea turtle, a brown bear, a chimpanzee, a herd of elements, two king penguins, a cheetah.
It feels like a lot of back and forth and when things shift it’s sometimes pretty jarring. In the first episode, for instance, we were hooked on the story of the cheetah trying to find food during the dry season, hoping her cubs don’t starve to death. We saw her chase a gazelle and stop when she ran out of energy to run at top speed; it’s fascinating to see how the cheetah is a solo hunter who needs copious amounts of rest to essentially “power up” for the next chase. But then we go from there to closeups of the sun, then down to a microscopic view of a blade of grass.
And while we admire the attempts by the producers to bring such massive scope into something of a focus in 58 short minutes, there’s a lot of whiplash involved that brings us out of the story.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Previewing the next episode, we see a graphic of a fetus, and Freeman says, “Would any of us be here without time?”
Sleeper Star: Lux Aeterna did the visual effects for the series, and they’re nothing short of amazing.
Most Pilot-y Line: A side trip to see some of the other subjects of this series — the chimps, the elephants, the bear — foraging for food seemed unnecessary to us.
Our Call: STREAM IT. As much as it feels like it’s two docuseries combined into a big unwieldy mess, Our Universe‘s graphics, photography and narration still make it a compelling watch.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.comFast Company and elsewhere.