Film review: Living Universe

Described as not science fiction, but science faction, this new documentary blends expert interviews, dramatic space-scapes and an imagined starship journey in its exploration of the quest for interstellar travel.

Aug 09, 2018, updated Aug 09, 2018
The Minerva vessel leaves Earth's orbit. Photo: ARTE France

The Minerva vessel leaves Earth's orbit. Photo: ARTE France

On July 28 this year, thousands of Australians witnessed the brightest lunar eclipse in 100 years. Space is cool, and as the planet slowly erodes around us, more than ever we are looking to the stars for answers to humankind’s most important questions.

These questions are investigated in this fascinating and optimistic documentary by producers Christine Le Goff, Floran Sax , Marcus Gillezeau and Aline Jacques.

Narrated by Australian science wizard and Triple J regular Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Living Universe explores the next step in the mission to discover if we are alone in the universe, and how close we might be to interstellar travel.

As well as this it follows the imagined journey of an unmanned starship travelling to the fictional Planet Minerva B, 150 years into the future. The starship is captained by an artificial intelligence pilot, Artemis, voiced by Australian astrophysicist Professor Tamara Davis.

Trekking the globe to talk to the greatest minds in astrophysics, the Living Universe producers are interested in three simple questions: Where are we going? What will it take to get there? When will we be ready to leave?

So, where are we going? Gentry Lee, chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA (and the most excited person in astrophysics), explains that the reason Earth can support life is because it lies in the Goldilocks Zone – positioned the perfect distance away from the star around which it orbits, so it is not too hot and not too cold. Therefore any planet we hope to travel to must also orbit around a star at this perfect distance.

And as interplanetary explorer Steve Squyres explains, any planet where life can be sustained must contain water in liquid form.

Directors Alex Barry and Vincent Amouroux have created a well-structured film, with each segment containing its own mini stories and their individual heroes. These mini stories are intricately woven together by dramatic space-scapes juxtaposed with pictures of our own stunning planet, alongside a soundtrack that would not be out of place in a sci-fi film.

The most curious aspect of Living Universe is the journey to Minerva B, which at the beginning of the film was an unwelcome distraction, but by the end is an embedded and integral part of the storyline. The effects are not the Hollywood CGI type we have come to expect from cinema in 2018, but to stick a big chunk of CGI in this beautifully sculpted film would be egregious and unnecessary, and the journey to Minerva is perfect the way it is.

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Living Universe is a well-researched, nuanced and thorough update on how far humanity has come, and how far it still has to go, in its quest for interstellar travel. It paints an optimistic portrayal amid the throngs of negativity dominating the modern documentary landscape.

Living Universe will screen in SA Event Cinemas from August 9-14.

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