I feel like I've been writing too much about films I didn't care for, so I'm happy to get back to the tail end of my Hot Docs experience with a review of a documentary that does everything right. Blast!, directed by Paul Devlin, takes an unlikely topic - an astrophysics research project - and turns it into an adventure tale with twists and turns, lively characters, and some lessons about, um... life, the universe and everything.
The film documents a project to launch a balloon into the upper atmosphere with a telescope powerful enough to see into the far corners of the universe. Why a balloon? It's way cheaper than building another Hubble. It also happens to be fun - a kind of hands-on Popular Mechanics project, but with a lot more money and probably a few academic careers at stake. Why do this? Well, the scientists - the director's brother, Mark Devlin, and a Toronto cosmologist named Barth Netterfield - are looking for answers to a few simple questions: how the universe began, how stars are created, how life came to be... basic things like that.
All this sounds like an episode of Nova, of interest to science geeks only. But unlike the makers of The Singing Revolution, Devlin understands a few things about storytelling: building strong characters, having a solid story arc, and stripping down complex ideas to the bare essentials the audience needs to know. This is not a film about space science, though along the way we actually learn a few things about cosmology; it's a film about the thirst for knowledge, ingenuity, obsessiveness, and humans' attempts to know - and control - nature. And of course nature will not be controlled: if the weather doesn't cooperate, the team's very expensive telescope is just so much twisted metal, and years of work go down the drain.
Devlin's two project leaders and their graduate students are drinking from some kind of mysterious well of enthusiasm and optimism (I want to know where this well is located). In the first ten minutes of the film, a crash in Sweden wrecks the telescope's very expensive lens. But the scientists rebuild and start again, this time in Antarctica. Wisely, Devlin sticks with the character-based story, and keeps bringing in the personal, such as his brother Mark's long months away from home, and the effect of this on his young family. At the same time, he keeps a tight rein on the scientific jargon: most of the interviews end up in voiceover, which suggests there was a lot of editing of abstruse interview clips about the science. We learn why the scientists want to look at the universe and what they hope to learn, but we don't get bogged down in the suble differences between dark matter and dark energy.
Ultimately, Devlin lucks out, and the scientists face obstacle after obstacle on their quest to launch the telescope and catch it when it comes down. But it's the character-driven approach that guarantees that we care whether they succeed.
Here's a problem that's inherent in this kind of film, though: scientific progress is slow and incremental, which is not exactly conducive to a satisfying climax. In the end, Blast! feels kind of anti-climactic -- the result of all this hard work is a small advance for other scientists to build on. For an audience accustomed to the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, this may feel flat. But Blast! is a great window on the world of pure science, where progress is often measured not in light years but in nanometres.