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Non-Review Review: The Farthest

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The Farthest is a fascinating documentary looking at the history and the legacy of the “Voyager” space programme.

Assembling a panel of experts from both inside and outside the development process, director Emer Reynolds crafts a captivating examination of mankind’s first journey beyond the boundaries of the solar system and into the untested void. The Farthest is a romantic tribute to the idea of space exploration, to the wonders that it holds and the inquiries that it inspires. It is a documentary that looks to the stars and wonders, as interested in what mankind is putting out there as it is in what wonders lie in wait.

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The Farthest is bookended by a number of beautiful shots from Reynolds. The camera stares upwards at the sky as it pans slowly across a number of different locations. The sky can be narrowly glimpsed between the branches of tall trees. The audience’s eye is channeled upwards through the framework of a steel pylon. Occasionally, the sky is clear and blue. Sometimes there are faint signs of human activity, with planes charting the sky at a much more manageable scale than the craft at the centre of the documentary’s narrative.

There is something very striking and very beautiful in these opening and close shots, something that captures the sensation of looking up into the wild blue (or black) yonder and wondering what is out there or what might be staring back. The Farthest feels like romantic ode to the majesty of space, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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The Farthest offers a delicate balance in terms of coverage. On one hand, it is fascinated with the question of what exactly is out there. The Voyager space programme was the first mission to really look beyond the confines of the asteroid belt, offering a close glimpse at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before careening out of the solar system and into the space between stars. The Farthest tries to capture a sense of this wonder, taking the audience through each of the four planets and what exciting new information Voyager offered in that regard.

Some of this information is quite challenging from a documentary standpoint. Scientists might be fascinated by storms of Jupiter or active volcanoes on distant moons or gigantic geysers on Triton, but they make a hard sell for an accessible science documentary when the only first-hand material is grainy black-and-white photography that has been enhanced and colour-corrected. These discovers were groundbreaking in terms of how scientists understood the solar system, but they are not very exotic to the layperson.

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Reynolds responds to this challenge in a number of ways. Perhaps most effectively, she allows her panel of experts to talk at length about their own excitement and their own fascination. Reynolds has drawn together a fantastic collection of scientists and researchers, and their genuine enthusiasm is infectious. After all, science has always worked best when it was filtered through somebody truly excited about the prospect. This is what makes scientists like Carl Sagan or Brian Cox or even David Attenborough so effective; their joy shines through.

However, The Farthest also benefits from some wonderful special effects work and composition. These renderings of the intra- (and subsequently inter-) stellar journey cannot compete with large-scale big-budget blockbusters, but they are inspiring in their simplicity. More than that, Reynolds uses those visual aids to create a true sense of space and scale. The Farthest plays with concepts that space-bound special effects normally take for granted, like geometric planes and centrifugal force. The result is visually stunning.

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More than that, Reynolds intercuts these science-heavy discussions with broader philosophical debates and more human anecdotes. The Farthest works hard to put a human face on the mission, and to provide a clear human context for the launch. Nick Sagan talks about his contribution to the mission, at the behest of his mother and his father. There is footage from the party celebrating the end of the mission, complete with Chuck Berry playing Johnny B. Goode to a campus full of dancing NASA and JPL staff.

“Oftentimes,” one commentator observes towards the end of the documentary, “when people ask ‘why’, what they really mean is’how’.” However, The Farthest is a film as fascinated with the “why” as the “how.” It is a film that provides context for this mission, from the resignation of Richard Nixon to the Challenger disaster. More than that, it devotes considerable time to question of what exactly the mission says about mankind and mankind’s relationship to the wider universe.

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Indeed, a minor recurring theme of the documentary is the tension that sometimes exists between those more philosophically and scientifically inclined. Early on, one expert admits that certain scientists were frustrated by the attention paid to the “golden record” instead of to the hard science of the mission itself. Later, one observer reflects on the difficulty that Carl Sagan had convincing NASA to sign off on a “goodbye” shot of the solar system from Voyager I, because it served no scientific purpose.

These conflicts also played out in reverse. Twice, the movie touches upon controversies around what could and could not be included in the material sent out into space. The idea of potentially presenting the naked human form to alien life became a minor flashpoint, with some observers outraged at the “smut” and the “filth”, ignoring the very logical justifications for depicting the biological human form on the craft. Although never the focus of the film, The Farthest does touch upon the conflict that can exist between these two ideals.

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However, The Farthest also works hard to reconcile any perceived conflict between these elements, acknowledging that the quest for hard scientific knowledge does not take place at the expense of broader philosophical inquiries, and indeed suggesting that those two very different aspects of the space programme can inform and shape one another. It might not be practical or useful to wonder about alien life in a universe this vast, but asking those questions can tease important answers about ourselves.

The Farthest is a romantic and occasionally poetic tribute to the majesty of space and to the wonder of the sky.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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