Filmmakers have always been fascinated by space. Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) presented audiences with novel cosmic spectacle. Incredibly popular when it was released, the film remains an important milestone in world cinema and science-fiction film-making.
Costly sci-fi flops in the ’20s and ’30s gave way to the rise of the Saturday-morning serial; Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon delighted children and adults alike with their episodic tales of derring-do among the stars. The 1950s were a golden age of science fiction cinema and writing.
Despite a slump in the ’60s, advances in special effects produced important and groundbreaking genre staples, as well as campy cult favourites: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and Barbarella.
The space race and moon landing saw science fiction become science fact, and the following decade produced one of the great films of world cinema with Solaris, as well as Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the industry-changing success of Star Wars.
The ’80s had E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Aliens, and the next entries in the Star Wars saga. The 1990s and 2000s also had their fair share of standout science-fiction and space films of note.
This detour into the history of outer space on the silver screen shows us that the stars have always occupied a large part of the movie-going experience.
The Farthest, a new documentary by Emer Reynolds, tells the story of NASA’s Voyager mission through present-day interviews, archival footage, and computer-generated renderings visualizing the Voyager probes’ ongoing journeys.
As detailed above, images of space travel and distant planets are not unfamiliar to us. Reynolds, though, orchestrates the various elements of The Farthest in such a way as to make for an informative and deeply moving experience.
Much of The Farthest’s opening hour establishes the challenges of the Voyager project. Talking-head interviews with the scientists and engineers outline the conception, design, and building of the Voyager spacecrafts; we also see extensive archival footage of the process. In a nod to 1970s film-making, much of the footage is presented through ever-expanding split screening, a neat touch.
Meanwhile, the interview segments are shot up-close and reveal a lot of the heart and soul behind the project. Smiles, teary eyes, and sentimental sighs speak to a sense of pride among the team members. In turn, the audience can’t help but feel proud of humankind as a whole.
The film format also provides a good view of the Voyager’s planetary grand tour. Photographs of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are presented to us in montage. The planets and moons appear as black-and-white stills. They come at the audience from a great distance, blurry at first and then in intricate detail.
These sequences are mesmerising. Even in black and white, the images are remarkable. The enthusiasm of the interviewees as they recall seeing these images for the first time is infectious. Again, it’s hard not to be swept up in the excitement.
The photography and archival footage is intercut with computer renderings of the spacecraft’s flight. These sequences, when coupled with the interview segments, do a fine job of contextualizing what we’re seeing.
It’s a happy accident that the CGI tends to underwhelm somewhat in comparison to the actual photography. Still, the overall effect of these elements never failed in creating a sense of awe.
Another avenue explored during the course of the documentary is the Voyager Golden Records, a set of phonograph records that were placed on the spacecraft. Interviews detail the selection process for the sounds, greetings, music, and images that were included on the record.
Creating something to represent the whole of humanity is a fascinating process and one of some enormity, something that’s not lost on those who in the film talk us through the thought process behind the record’s content.
Reynolds inserts an apt visual metaphor for this element of the mission, cutting to a stylized sequence of a message in a bottle floating in a body of open water. There are a number of these type of sequences throughout The Farthest that show Reynolds’ wit and ingenuity when tackling heady material.
The Golden Record, emotional interview content, and some archival footage and recordings of Carl Sagan, do a good job of balancing humanity with hard science. The Farthest is hard science on the outside but gooey on the inside and as a result it manages to sustain interest and surprise the audience throughout.
At times, watching The Farthest made me feel insignificant. Coming face to face with the cosmos in all its enormity is enough to make anyone feel small. But Reynolds isn’t out to belittle, she’s out to inspire. The ever-present pride on the faces of the men and women involved with the programme gives way to a greater sense of pride in humanity as a whole.
I found The Farthest to be as affirming as it is wondrous. It is a truly astonishing film.