Judge Gordon Sullivan understands the Earth is round. That's about it.
Welcome to Astrophysics—Indiana Jones style!
Science is a fascinating and exciting pursuit in all its flavors. The only problem is that even the most exciting stories can be difficult to explain to the layman. Titanic struggles taking place in distant galaxies or under the most powerful microscopes are hard to put into perspective for people who haven't lived and breathed the subject for a decade. That's why everyone (especially scientists) are overjoyed when culture is graced with a scientist who is also a gifted explainer. People like Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan are obviously renowned for their contributions to scientific discovery, but they are arguably more important men because of their ability to explain to the average citizen exactly what their discoveries meant. However, as recording equipment gets increasingly cheap, we are seeing more and more documentaries that follow some group of scientists, showing their life and death struggles at the edge of knowledge while putting them in context for everyone to enjoy. BLAST! is one of those documentaries, showcasing the struggles of a team of astrophysicists to launch a telescope on a balloon in an arctic environment. It's an experience that's both informative and entertaining.
Follow me for a bit: light travels at a fixed speed in a vacuum (like space), and it covers a certain distance per year (a light year). That means that if we see a bit of light that travelled a light year to get to us, that light is a year old, and we are effectively looking into the past. The team behind BLAST (Balloon-Borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope) hope to launch their telescope to observe light in ways never before attempted, allowing them to look at light old enough to have been present at the birth of galaxies, perhaps all the way back to the origins of our universe. The only problem is that such an instrument needs to be outside the Earth's atmosphere, and is both heavy and delicate. To get a traditional satellite launch could take a decade and millions of dollars, millions the team of physicists don't have. Instead, they opt for the much cheaper option of launching by balloon, but this is not without its own challenges. They need to be away from civilization, in an area with clear weather patterns, and they quite literally need the stars to align for them. This leads the team on a global trek to launch their telescope.
I'll allow that not everyone has an interest in astrophysics, even if that astrophysics could help explain some of the fundamental questions we have about our universe. However, everybody can get behind a tense, goal-oriented story populated by passionate, committed people doing a thankless and dangerous job. I don't have any experience with astrophysics, but I have spent my life hanging around marine biologists, and the kind of scientists who are willing to trade the comforts of a lab for the rigors of field work in far-flung places tend to be intelligent, funny people. The crew behind BLAST are no exception, and watching them struggle to get their baby into the air is both nerve-wracking and heartwarming.
As a documentary, BLAST! wisely sticks with following the action of the various launch attempts. We get a bit of explanation for the project (along with some effective visual aids), but this is not the kind of dry science docs I remember from high school. In fact, the film starts with launch footage from Antarctica, and things don't go perfectly. At about the two-minute mark, one of the scientists starts cursing and from there I knew this wasn't going to be a typical talking-head documentary. The film also makes a smart move and doesn't overstay its welcome, combining the telescope's various launch attempts into just over 70 minutes of footage.
On DVD, BLAST! looks good for an indie documentary. Lots of the film takes place in white arctic environments, ensuring a bright-looking movie. Color rendition is generally strong, and object detail okay. Most of the limitations have more to do with the cameras used than the DVD transfer. The stereo track does an excellent job keeping everything audible, from the arctic wind to the scientific explanations. Extras start with a number of deleted scenes. The first, and likely most significant is "Werner Herzog Visits BLAST Team," where the famous filmmaker spends some time with the team while filming Encounters at the End of the World. The deleted scenes total about 25 extra minutes, and mostly show off what it's like to have to live in these remote locations. Then we get the film's trailer.
BLAST! may not be for everyone (like those who think the Earth is only six thousand years old), but it's a solid independent documentary that takes an well-constructed look at a group of scientists defying the odds to bring back cutting-edge insights into our understanding of the universe. If that doesn't make science fun, I don't know what will.
Quite a BLAST! Not guilty.
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