Jonathan Victory voyages to The Farthest, Emer Reynolds’ documentary on NASA’s Voyager mission.
Winning the Audience Award at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this year says a lot about The Farthest. Many films were well-received at the festival, yet a science documentary is one that left the biggest impact on the audience. This is not only because of the mind-blowing implications of its subject matter; the story of the farthest man-made object from Earth. The assured direction of Emer Reynolds (http://filmireland.net/2017/02/19/podcast-interview-with-emer-reynolds-director-of-the-farthest/ ) presented the story with cinematic presence. When documentaries feature impressive visuals such as those here, it commands its place on the big screen.
The Farthest tells the story of the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched into space by NASA in 1977 and currently leaving the outer boundaries of our solar system. In marking the 40th anniversary, The Farthest gathers an impressive assortment of interviews from people closely involved in the Voyager program. The purpose of the project was to send two spacecraft on a reconnaissance mission of the solar system’s planets, transmitting new discoveries back to Earth before leaving the solar system and hurtling off into interstellar space forever. If not strictly “forever”, the spacecraft were designed to last for billions of years and could potentially outlast planet Earth itself and be the only trace that we ever existed.
Not one to miss the bigger picture, Carl Sagan realised the Voyager program had an entirely unique but time-sensitive opportunity; sending a time capsule of Earth’s civilisation into space. With only months to go before the launch, Sagan received NASA’s blessing to lead a team producing a Golden Record that would be stored onboard with visual instructions on how to play it. It is virtually impossible that Voyager will ever be intercepted by an alien civilisation but IF one discovers it, they could transfer frequencies on the record onto a screen and see 115 images of Earth. They would also hear a selection of the Earth’s noises and human languages as well as a 90-minute selection of music from across the world’s cultures. It is worth listening to the record’s contents online and reflecting on humanity’s presentation of itself in the 1970s.
Since the chances of its discovery by extra-terrestrials are miniscule, the Voyager Golden Record is primarily a statement for ourselves; a reflection of our higher values and an invaluable thought experiment on how we would present ourselves to a galaxy many have yearned to explore. It was created during a very specific sliver of time in the 1970s; the threat of environmental destruction loomed, the threat of nuclear holocaust persisted. The world was being torn in all sorts of directions amid an unprecedented technology boom yet it was beginning to be perceived as a global community facing common responsibilities. Sending a message in a bottle to outer space was a bold statement for the time, suggesting a species optimistic enough that it would triumph over its problems.
So fascinating are the implications of the Golden Record that it often gets the most focus over Voyager’s scientific team and their amazing discoveries about our solar system. Emer Reynolds weaves these threads together, each given equal weight to the Voyager’s physical journey of mind-blowing proportions and to the stories of the people who worked on this incredible project. Candour is drawn from a diverse range of people involved in this project and distilled into a two-hour running time packed full of information presented with clarity and momentum.
The thrill of discovery that scientists felt about each planet is conveyed with great impact. The long stretches of travel between planets are when the focus shifts to broader issues at play or the contents of the Golden Record, whose selection could justify a documentary of its own. This narrative structure allows The Farthest to take a broader view of the project and build chronologically towards the stunning realisation that objects made by human hands are now outside of our solar system.
As incredible as this story is, a lesser director would not have made the subject come alive as a cinematic experience. Emer Reynolds crafts a strong audio-visual sensibility to The Farthest. A soundscape of radio frequency noises and an eclectic soundtrack engage the viewer. Ray Harman’s poignant compositions complement music taken from the Voyager Golden Record’s collection. Other licensed tracks, apart from the closing song, all come from 1977 or earlier, grounding the film’s vibe in the era during which Voyager left Earth never to return. This imbues the Voyager with a character insofar as it can be but the visual sensibility on display here is anything but dated.
Opening shots of the sky are beautifully sharp compositions by cinematographer Kate McCullough. That McCullough has worked primarily in documentary before illustrates that strong visuals needn’t be absent from the form of documentary nor should they be. Visual effects are refreshingly alternated between CG shots of Voyager in space and close-up footage of paints, chemicals and dyes mixing together in fabulous galactic tableaus. The latter technique was pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for stunning sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.
A particularly jaw-dropping visual accompanies the approach to each planet by showing the actual approach to each planet. Black-and-white photos from Voyager during their long approach towards planets are edited into an enthralling montage as each grey world looms out of the immense darkness. There are so many surprises from Voyager’s images and from rich archive footage precisely selected to build the story’s momentum.
This is all edited together into a superb cinematic experience and one with a far more global consciousness than any Irish film to date. The cosmic perspective it instils makes threats to the environment seem inexcusably reckless and national boundaries seem petty. It also makes space exploration seem daunting yet utterly captivating for its possibilities. The Farthest has a profound impact on viewers such that it would make them appreciate these words of Carl Sagan, “How lucky we are to live in this time, the first moment in human history, where we are in fact visiting other worlds”.
The Farthest screened on Sunday 26th February 2017 at the Savoy as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.