Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Beautiful Planet: Astounding views of Spaceship Earth

A Beautiful Planet (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

I’m unlikely to make it into space myself, but Toni Myers’ IMAX films definitely are the next best thing.

No, this photo isn't rotated 90 degrees. NASA Commander Terry Virts "jogs" on a
treadmill onboard the International Space Station. Each crew member is required to
exercise at least two hours every day.
She already set the bar impressively high, with her 2010 giant-screen production of Hubble 3D: a jaw-dropping trip that dazzled from one awesome moment to the next. Her newest — A Beautiful Planet — is every bit as inspiring.

This 45-minute documentary, filmed entirely in space, divides its time between amazing Earthly vistas and the regimented routine of daily life on the International Space Station. The film isn’t scripted per se, although the loose narrative brackets the arrival and departure, after six months, of ISS astronauts Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti. The latter provides some of the off-camera commentary, her candid, unrehearsed views of station life blended with actress Jennifer Lawrence’s more formal (and frequently trenchant) narration.

The images throughout are stunning, with golly-gee-wow moments piling one atop the next; the overall sensation is breathtaking and rapturous, particularly with the dimensionality supplied by the 3D cinematography. Veteran IMAX cinematographer James Neihouse trained the astronauts to become their own camera operators, and they obviously learned their lessons well (although I’d have liked to see how the heck they maneuvered those bulky rigs within the ISS’ confined spaces and tight corners).

The 25-mile-wide eye of Typoon Maysak, as seen from the
International Space Station.
Some of the Earthly images are mere (!) visual spectacle, such as the perfect circular eye of a massive typhoon, seen from above, or the fireworks-style flickering of lightning strikes that dot a huge wave of thunderstorms. Other sights offer barbed political commentary, merely as a study in contrast: none more striking than the nighttime view of South Korea, ablaze with the lights of cities and civilization, and — by sober comparison — the sharp dividing line that delineates the border shared with North Korea, that entire country remaining almost entirely dark.

Deep-space telescopic images will tantalize science-fiction fans who obsess about the possibility of other beings Out There; our imaginations are stimulated by a planet dubbed Kepler-186F, with the Earth-like qualities that could support life. It’s only 490 light-years away: a mere stroll.

Space station life, it becomes clear, is a constant blur of activity; if the astronauts aren’t sleeping, they’re working, dodging each other during the performance of myriad small tasks, or suiting up for occasional exterior maintenance. Watching them unload a SpaceX cargo ship is a hoot, the various packages and containers carefully logged as to location, in order not to be lost amid the thousands of other items.

As a passing tidbit, this is the first IMAX space production to employ SpaceX ships, and also film them: pretty cool all by itself.

Medical technology has learned that long-term zero-gravity is hazardous to the human body — although one does tend to get an inch or two taller — and so the astronauts must exercise constantly. Jogging in place is intriguing enough, but the Rube Goldberg-esque workout contraption that Cristoforetti uses is flat-out fascinating.

Watching Virts wash his hair is a hoot, given the need to conserve every precious drop of water. (Squeamish viewers may wince over a casual comment about the degree to which all liquids are recycled.) During another light-hearted moment, Cristoforetti experiments with a newly developed zero-G espresso “cup” ... and pronounces the experience far more satisfying than sipping her brew through a straw.

A makeshift Christmas day celebration is equally droll, with astronauts wearing elf ears and huddled around a gaily decorated tree: a tableau granted incongruity because one of the celebrants hovers upside-down above the little tree.

The Canadarm 2 reaches out to grapple the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft, to prepare to
pull it into port on the International Space Station. This SpaceX service mission carried
new science investigations and supplies for the crew, and remained with the station
for five weeks.
But Myers’ film isn’t all lightness, cheer and mind-blowing panoramas. Many of the best IMAX documentaries, particularly those that focus on some aspect of Mother Nature, also serve as gentle propaganda: reminders of our essential role in the order of things. A Beautiful Planet isn’t quite as gentle, Lawrence’s immaculately articulated commentary adding an emotionally powerful note to tableaus that are far from “beautiful.”

The impact of California’s lengthy drought is plainly visible in the state’s pronounced brownish hue, as is the Central Valley depression created by the over-pumping of underground aquifers. Massive plumes of ugly, dirty smoke designate where huge swaths of precious Brazilian rain forest are being burned, solely to create more grazing land for cattle.

Retreating glaciers are clearly visible; so is the polluted sludge that fouls river basins throughout the world. These images are sickening, as is the unspoken reminder that such myopic, greed-driven devastation continues only because ill-informed, head-in-the-sand political leaders refuse to acknowledge the reality of our species’ impact on the planet.

In that context, an observation by Cristoforetti is particularly astute. There are no “passengers” aboard ISS, she tells us; everybody is a “crew member,” with ongoing responsibilities that help keep the station viable. By the same token, we Earthbound citizens should not think of ourselves as passengers; we, too, are crew members. All of us.

Those who don’t behave as such, and pull their weight, are part of an ever-expanding problem.

The blissful landscapes captured so magnificently from space, contrasted with the more sobering scenes of devastation, are ample encouragement to roll up our collective sleeves and do something about it. After all, we don’t want films such as this to become unhappy reminders of the way things used to be, before ecological catastrophes became ubiquitous.

The goal, after all, is to ensure that Earth remains a “beautiful planet.”

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