1977. The year of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee celebrations, the year of the death of Elvis Presley and the year that, 16 days apart, space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched into space by NASA. Originally intended to go on ‘the outer planets grand tour’ with the hope of further distances, Voyager 1 recently entered ‘interstellar space’ and, 40 years in, has reached a distance of ’12 billion miles away and counting’. The Farthest documents how the mission came to be, the process of its assembly, the Golden Record it carries (more on this latter) and the discoveries it has led to whilst making its journey.
The end result whilst watching is an exceptionally moving documentary, to a truly profound extent. Told through a blend of talking heads of those involved, photographs taken by the twin probes, archive footage, supporting decorative cinematography and animated reconstruction – throughout all of which nothing is wasted or unnecessary – this is a documentary that, whilst being about space, ends up truly reflecting upon the human experience.
Having gathered up the scientists who were involved we get to hear a detailed account from the very people who were there for every step of the journey. Every single account is verbose and informative, warm, interesting and accessible for all. Together they act as pieces of the puzzle, reassembling to retell their story. Although what they are telling us is science-driven, when accompanied with their personal anecdotes and the variety of cinematography, the outcome is beautifully poetic.
The main take-home message is how everything simultaneously matters so little yet matters greatly indeed. We, humans and our very presence, is insignificant yet truly wondrous. It makes for a truly overwhelming watching experience, feeling dwarfed by the vastness yet elevated and uplifted up by it also. In all of that space, in all of the distance that the twin probes have covered, we’ve only got Earth, all 6,371km of it. A small speck in a distance that is too humongous to truly comprehend. The documentary therefore lends itself to a rather timely train of thought, when the press is constantly filled with disasters manmade and natural, when we recount all that has happened in the 40 years since being launched – we as individuals are brief flickers in the tale of time and space.
That’s why having the main tale of the launch of the probes being supported with the story of the Golden Record is so effective – it makes the incomprehensible that bit more comprehensible and allows us to latch onto something a bit more familiar. There are two copies of the Golden Record in existence, each is attached respectively to a Voyager. On that record are images, sounds and songs used to depict life on Earth. The very thought that out there, in the farthest reaches of space, there’s the means to listen to Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode along with a whole array of other marvellous things to represent us, it’s truly incredible. That amongst all the bad that occurs,all that we do to each other, there’s a time capsule out there to solidify our presence and to show the good that has been in the world. It’s a thought that brings hope; chilling, in a good way, to think that it will still be drifting as we live out our lives, and after we die. Quite simply, ‘it’s just going to keep going, forever and ever.’
The documentary, whether it intended to or not becomes more than a documentary about space. It becomes philosophical, a pondering about the unknown, a tale of admiration, awe and adventure about those ‘crawling on the planet’s face. Some insects called the human race.’ This is science nonfiction at its farthest and its finest. Both the record and the probe are monuments to human achievement, that good and wondrous things have been, can be and will be achieved.
Dir: Emer Reynolds
Scr: Emer Reynolds
Cast: Frank Drake, Carolyn Porco, John Casani, Lawrence Krauss, Timothy Ferris, Edward Stone.
DOP: Kate McCullough
Prd: John Murray, Clare Stronge.
Music: Ray Harman
Run time: 101 minutes
The Farthest is in UK cinemas from Friday 1st September.