Take Science… Seriously

Part loony gonzo documentary (think Morgan Spurlock) and part earnest science project (think Mythbusters with really, really big budgets and brainiac nerds instead of uber-fanboys), BLAST! is director Paul Devlin’s film of his astrophysicist brother Mark Devlin’s attempt to put a telescope in high-Earth orbit to gather clues about the origins of the Universe.  If that sounds like a pretty esoteric thing to wrap your brain around… well, it is.  But Mark Devlin and his team of scientists and grad students are just wacky enough to make it all fun, and Paul Devlin’s style is light enough not to bog down proceedings.  Much.  (It is a science film, after all!)

BLAST stands for Balloon-Borne, Large-Aperture, Submillimeter Telescope.  That’s right: “Balloon-Borne.”  That means that, all the really high-tech stuff aside, the real challenge in this enterprise is working with NASA’s high-altitude balloon technologists to hoist delicate instrumentation aloft with a really monstrous helium balloon and do so without destroying the whole shebang.  That involves a lot of waiting for the right weather windows, and a lot of angst about elements of the experiment over which the researchers have no control.  And over the course of two-plus years’ compressed time, we get to follow along on two attempts to make all the investment payoff.

Mark Devlin, the scientist at the epicenter of BLAST!While the film starts us out with the momentous 2006 launch of BLAST in Antarctica (the team was actually there while Werner Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World), it quickly backtracks to the initial test flight of the device in Sweden the previous year.  Here we meet Mark Devlin and his co-researcher Barth Netterfield, a wacky teaming of an American (Devlin) who’s reminiscent of John Malkovich at his most jovial and a Canadian (Netterfield) who comes off as a not-ready-for-primetime cast member from Kids in the Hall.  Paul Devlin is right to go for the comedic angle with this pair, though, and the quirky duo is pretty fun to hang out with.

As director Mark Devlin is himself a cosmologist (“an astronomer who studies the evolution and space-time relations of the universe”) he seems fascinated by the views of astrophysicist Netterfield, who’s not at all bashful about being a Christian—or about being a complete science nerd, too.  It’s refreshing to see a good-natured discussion about the interplay of science and faith, and fun watching Devlin give Netterfield ample room to talk about the ways in which digging deeper into the birth of the stars informs his appreciation of God.

But back to the action: after the telescope goes aloft for a test drive and gets grounded on Arctic tundra, Devlin must salvage the hardware… with the help of a helicopter and a rifle-toting polar-bear spotter.  The humanoid elements of the excursion are naturally chagrined when the helicopter must make its first return trip with the telescope, leaving them behind to the bears… and that bear spotter.

A few hardware and software tweaks (and several months) later, the team is off to what we really want to see: the International station at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.  On this score, I’ve got to say that Devlin (the filmmaker) far outdoes Herzog in capturing the full breadth of living in such a strange place.  (Herzog is himself perhaps too odd a person to know strange when he sees it.)  I’m an Antarctic junkie, of course, so my views are naturally biased.

But the heart of the film—and the big payoff—arrives not when BLAST launches but when it comes back to Earth.  This is when the tension really ratchets up, the scientists’ mettle is sorely tested, and the filmmaking really shines.

If documentaries in general aren’t your thing but you find you can’t stay away from reality TV, this is the film for you.  I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite doc of the year (I see a ton of them) but I learned an awful lot about familiar subjects, and was glad to have sat down to watch this one.

BLAST! is unrated, but I imagine this is probably PG-13 for language.  I can’t remember any foul language, of course, because I don’t count swear words and don’t notice them much; but I’m guessing they’re there!

Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional DVD of BLAST!