SCREEN QUEST: THE FARTHEST

NOW SHOWING: THE FARTHEST — (2017) — d. Emer Reynolds — 2hr 1 min — Bertha DocHouse / Curzon Bloomsbury — General Release.


12 BILLION MILES, AND COUNTING…

Don’t let the trad talking heads fool you: this interstellar documentary about NASA’s Voyager missions will blast your brain with ginormous lightning bolts. Devoid of pompous nonsense (yes, we’re talking about you STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE…), the tale of the first objects ever to extend man’s reach beyond our solar system speaks entirely for itself.

Director Emer Reynolds knows that she’s onto a good thing with the scientists that command, monitor and share discoveries from the two little spaceships that could. Theirs is a miraculous story of invention and good fortune told simply and effectively through extensive interviews, archival newsreels, a moving score and some polished CGI.

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What really works is the focus on the people behind the epic, seasoned scientists weeping at the sheer beauty of what has become their lifework. The film is also surprisingly fresh and witty as the subjects expose their funny sides. Then there are the moments of pure history: the revealing flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, the shuttle disaster that stopped the programme in its tracks, the moment Voyager 1 burst the bubble of our solar system. All of this is rendered in the heart-wrenchingly human by people with a deep passion for their work. There’s also a beautiful breakout party scene where Chuck Berry – one of Earth’s voices carried by the Voyagers – celebrates their discoveries.

For such an episodic tale – years pass between the Voyagers’ planetary encounters – there are perhaps too many return visits to the infamous golden records embedded in each probe. Working out how to communicate with alien life is an intriguing puzzle and there’s some gleeful stuff here about NASA’s prudishness (a nude photo is denied inclusion and, 40 years later, earns the doc a PG certificate for “natural nudity”). But, these sections feel somewhat repetitious. We prefer one scientist’s view that the entire Voyager craft is, in fact, our message to the stars: testimony from a civilisation that (once?) had the facility to send a welcoming messenger billions of miles into the future.

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For a film about science and adventure, we could have done with more of the ‘how’. When the now ageing heads talk about Voyager ‘s slingshot around Neptune, it would have been revealing to understand more about the challenge of reprogramming a remote vehicle with less computing capacity than a contemporary car key fob. Instead, the film’s reliance on glossy images of the Voyagers gracefully sliding through epic starscapes conjures the shiny myth of blockbuster rather than the inhuman speed and scale of interstellar reality.

Despite these minor flaws, you’re never far away from another brain expanding revelation. Turning Voyager around to photograph everything it was leaving behind gave rise to Carl Sagan’s legendary “the earth in a sunbeam”. Whilst scientifically unnecessary, it remains a jaw dropping moment rooted in humility. These latter sequences of the doc – as Voyager speeds far into interstellar space – reinforce the peculiar notion that, whilst forever forward thinking, the probes are now time capsules of a once and almost forgotten 1977. Who, or whatever, discovers them in the future may find Earth’s modern day residents somewhat unrecognisable.

“On that blue dot… that’s where everyone you know and everyone you ever heard of, and every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. It’s a very small stage in a great cosmic arena.” Carl Sagan.

THE FARTHEST is a stunning tribute to the human imagination behind an epic odyssey. That Voyager Command now seems to have been demoted to an anonymous office in a backlot somewhere, betrays nothing of its ongoing significance. At a time when we seem intent to only protect the ground beneath our feet, the message of Voyager’s boundless generosity and optimism couldn’t be more profound.

IN MOVING PICTURES

  • As Voyager approaches each new astronomical body, a flickering montage of unadorned monochrome images brings the next planet into view.

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All featured images: THE FARTHEST (2017).

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