Director: Emer Reynolds ‘Starring’: Voyager 1, Voyager 2 Running Time: 121 minutes
While the primary goal of a documentary is to be informative, the best ones always distinguish themselves by being visually interesting. They are after all, still movies, not lectures and the best cases for filmed documentary are made by taking advantage of the medium and providing images that remain in the mind where facts and figures can find it easier to break free. In Irish director Emer Reynold’s space-faring doc The Farthest, a combination of interviews, well-selected archive footage and photographs and impressive computer-generated imagery come together to tell the story of the NASA’s Voyager mission in a truly beautiful fashion. It’s easy to feel the awe of space exploration when it looks as good as this.
Reynolds starts her film on the ground looking up. The camera gazes towards the sky, above trees, toward the clouds, a calming moment of serenity and graceful visual introduction to the idea of looking at what there is far beyond what’s above us. As the film and Voyager One and Two make their way to the planets that the shuttles were tasked with documenting, the sight of the unmanned shuttles silhouetted against Jupiter, Venus, Uranus and Neptune resembles a pupil within a massive eye. We looked out, and we saw something. Even the photographs captured by Voyager, basic as they’re intended to be, have an artistic quality to them. This is a film filled with very moving images, and Reynolds capably weaves in the words of the people involved to enforce the emotion all the more.
Left to speak for themselves without voiceover or a visible interviewer, the words of the various scientists seen in the film veers occasionally into the jargon heavy. But their enthusiasm and pride always shines through and it’s impossible not to get swept up in it as they describe feats that, with the technology available in the 70s, bordered on the impossible. The Voyager missions were only intended to study the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn, but through the ingenuity of these men and women they not only continued to document the rest of our solar system but kept right on going, with Voyager One breaking out into inter-stellar space thirty-five years after launch, with Voyager Two possibly following at some point in our future. They could well keep on travelling through space, those upward-gazing images that open the film, repeated at the end, taking on a pensive quality. They’ll never be back.
But despite the film’s subjects being unmanned shuttles that we will never see again, the most impressive thing about The Farthest is how human a story it is. Much of what the people involved with in the mission did was not for strictly scientific reasons, but something deeper. A prime example being the inclusion of the ‘Golden Record’ on Voyager, an explanation of humanity presented via music on a record just on the chance aliens ever discovered Voyager and wanted to get into some Chuck Berry. Just as the media at the time were primarily occupied with the record, the parts of the film that cover it keep the film fun while it remains informative, a documentary within a documentary that says a lot about the kind of images that humanity wants to present of itself to whatever may be out there (images of naked humans were apparently censored, less we have E.T. thinking of us as shameless heathens).
Presenting what could be very dry information in an entertaining and profound way, The Farthest is a documentary that could be watched several times, with the facts it contains well-known, and still provide the same sense of wonder. It’s a story about ambition and achievement, a true story that helps us to actually feel good about humanity, which isn’t always easy. For obvious historical reasons, Americans do love to bask in the glory of the space race. As an outsider though, Emer Reynolds sees the universality to this human story, and it’s out there in the universe, with the best of humanity on record.(4 / 5)