Maria Flood enters a world of wonder in Emer Reynold’s The Farthest, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.
Irish filmmaker Emer Reynold’s second feature-length film, The Farthest tracks the genesis of the space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched by NASA in 1977. The mission of these satellites was to document Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune through photography and videography, and relay images back to earth for analysis. The satellites were programmed to continue their journey through the solar system, before finally exiting our galaxy and moving into the deep, dark regions of outer space. Both satellites continue their respective journeys through the ebony vastness of space: Voyager 1 exited our solar system on August 25, 2012, while Voyager 2 continues to move towards its outer boundary.
The film plunges us into a world of wonder, and the tale Reynolds tells is one that touches on infinity, eternity, and the beauty of human aspiration. Indeed, it is surprising that the stories of the physicists, cosmologists, geologists and engineers who created and programmed the Voyager satellites have not been told on the big screen before. Reynolds constructs the documentary around a series of interviews with high-profile members of the NASA teams, and these interviews are interwoven with stunning, previously unseen and re-digitized images from the Voyager journey. Added to the breathtaking quality of the images (and this film should be seen in the glorious, grand screen darkness of the cinema) is an exquisitely curated soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Rose Royce, Chuck Berry, Bach, and Mozart.
The film is packed with startling images of the planets: the rich, humming ochre and orange whorls of Jupiter, the buzzing ice-cool crystals of Saturn’s rings, the delicate clouds of Neptune and the violent eruptions of its moon, Triton, the ‘disappointing’ blue and hazy uniformity of Uranus (‘poor Uranus’, one cosmologist notes). The experts interviewed also have a wonderful ability to transform potentially perplexing and highly complex facts and figures into wonderfully memorable, bite size chunks. They speak of lightning strikes on Jupiter that could go halfway across America, and of Uranus’ moon Miranda where there are cliffs so steep and high, if you were to fall you could finish your daily newspaper on the way down — that is, if you weren’t too busy focusing your rapidly impending death. One of the engineers describes the technology of Voyager as comparable to the devices we have in our pockets today, removing not his mobile phone – but his automatic car keys,.
The film takes the viewer on a journey, not only to the outer reaches of the Milky Way, but also back in space and time to a moment in the 1970s when communication with alien species became a credible, and sought-after, prospect. Most of the scientists agree that alien, non-human intelligent life somewhere in the universe is not only a possibility, but rather a probability. But finding it is the problem: we are looking for ‘needles in infinite haystacks’. The principal barrier is not space, but time. In the history of humanity, one scientist notes, there have only been 100 or so years when the human species had potentially evolved the technological capacity to intercept signals from other beings in outer space. More than this, the vast distances that such signals have to travel through the universe mean that by the time they reach earth, or by the time our communications reach other intelligent life, a civilization or species that would have been capable of interpreting or receiving them may have evolved, peaked, and been lost or obliterated.
The Voyager mission also included a medium that was designed to communicate with interstellar beings, an enterprise which evoked as much debate in philosophical circles as it did among the scientific community. Carl Sagan was a key figure in this respect, and he was responsible for the creation of the ‘Golden Record’, what Sagan described as a kind of ‘message in a bottle’. Modeled on a vinyl record but made of solid gold, the recordings therein contain 90 minutes of music, 12 minutes of earthly soundscapes, 115 images, and even brainwave recordings of a person thinking about Earth, the history of ideas and human social organization, and what it’s like to fall in love. The musical portion of the record aimed to capture the ‘sounds of the earth’, with music culled from a vast number of cultural contexts, from Chuck Berry’s ‘Jonny B Goode’ (The Beatles refused an offer to be included), to Japanese shakuhachi music and African percussion.
The record also contained a vast array of messages in 55 global languages, what Janet Sternberg describes as ‘proto tweets’ — short, concise greetings from humans to potential alien listeners. Nick Sagan, son of Carl, had his voice recorded and describes the feeling of knowing that his greeting ‘from the children of Earth’, is hurtling around in space somewhere: ‘some piece of me is a traveller on that ship and will keep going’.
The sense of wonder conveyed by the NASA scientists, many of them in their sixties and seventies, is infectious. As one of them notes, the whole Voyager mission was born out of an innate and intrinsically human capacity for curiosity: ‘it is a human thing, and a childlike thing, to ask questions’. The number of female researchers who worked on the mission and who Reynolds has interviewed is also striking, and reminds us of the egalitarian ideals of the community of scientists in question.
Though rudimentary by present day standards, given the current state of the global climate, overburdened resources, and ecosystem destruction, it is not improbable that one day the Voyager probes may become, in the words of one scientist, ‘the only evidence that we ever existed’. Indeed, it seems a not uncommon belief amongst this group that ‘continued human existence will depend on our ability to live on other planets’.
Yet in spite of such potentially gloomy prognoses, I was struck by the way the film evokes a moment of powerful optimism, when the flower-fueled idealism of the 1960s transmuted into scientific and philosophical inquiry. When Voyager had completed its fact-finding missions around the planets of our solar system, against the wishes of senior NASA administrators, Carl Sagan arranged for the camera of Voyager 1 to be turned towards Earth, in ‘the world’s first selfie’. What they depicted disappointed many: Earth was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, one member of the team spotted a tiny blue dot in a hazy, rainbow ray from the sun. In a deeply humbling manner, our planet was visible only as a tiny speck in the infinite vastness of space.
It is not only the striking images that dazzle in this film, or the feats of intellectual inquiry. It is also the film’s evocation of the relentless thirst for knowledge and communication that drives all of us on some level, and the human capacity to recognize, and perhaps sometimes celebrate, our own insignificance. The Voyager mission took place in the midst of the Cold War, in a bitterly divided world. Now, although we are more and more connected through global technologies of travel and the Internet, productive communication between different ideological belief systems appears more and more fraught. The Farthest reminds us of a time when people reached out in love and friendship not only to each other, but also to beings and creatures that may or may not exist, in the belief that other lives, and other worlds, are possible.
Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runsruns 4 – 7 August.