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The Farthest review: a lively doc about the personalities behind Earth’s first interstellar spacecraft

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This 40-year retrospective of the still-ongoing Voyager missions brings the humor and humanity to the science

Tribeca Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Over the closing credits of The Farthest, an ebullient documentary about the 40-year progress of NASA’s first interstellar spacecraft, there’s an adorable moment where Voyager project manager John Casani takes director Emer Reynolds to task for referring to one of the Voyager probes as “her.” “I do not like to anthropomorphize spacecraft,” he scolds. He pauses for a beat and adds, straight-faced, “They don’t like it.” And then they both share a chuckle.

It’s a minor gag, but that moment sums up so much about The Farthest, an amiable, upbeat doc where the director and her interviewees are all in on the joke together. There’s a collegial “yay science!” humor to the interviews that make up most of The Farthest, which features two dozen members of the original Voyager team eagerly telling the story of the first spacecraft to leave the Solar System, starting with how they got the funding four decades ago, and moving forward in time to the present. Armchair space fans who chuckled over the hilarious signs featured in the nationwide March For Science on April 22nd will see some of the same humor at work here, as imaging scientists, rocket scientists, and plasma scientists gush and giggle over the Voyager project, showing how much personality can be a part of science and history.

What’s the genre?

Talking head historical doc, an oral history illustrated with contemporaneous footage, CGI re-creations, and spacey music by Archer Prewitt and Pink Floyd.

What’s it about?

What the two Voyager probes were intended to accomplish, what they learned about the outer planets, how politics and journalism responded at the time, and in general, what it was like being at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1970s and 1980s when the probes reached their major goals.

What’s it really about?

How the joy of discovery and a fascination with the unknown drives scientific scholarship, and how important the human variable is to the equation.

Is it good?

Serious gearheads may find The Farthest a little light and effusive. It opens with a long montage of interviewees talking up the project in poetic, outsized terms — one says the Voyager probes were “knocking on eternity,” another talks about how “every second, [Voyager 1] goes somewhere else we have never been before.” It maintains that slightly delirious tone throughout, but the technical details are relatively minimal. It’s fascinating to think that scientists in 1977, working with calculation systems less sophisticated than a modern electronic car key fob, built spacecraft that are still functioning 40 years later, still sending back telemetry from (in Voyager 1’s case) interstellar space.

But every time a team member cavalierly mentions reprogramming the Voyager probes remotely for new mission parameters, it’s a lost chance to touch on the mechanics and complications of dealing with decades-old hardware from millions of miles away. Even accessible blockbuster space films like Apollo 13 were more technologically detailed than this. Similarly, there’s a heavy focus on the pictures the Voyager craft took of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their moons, but virtually nothing is said about the scientific experiments performed, or what NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory learned, beyond “Jupiter is stormy” and “Uranus is visually kind of boring, comparatively.”

But the light focus on the mission’s actual science does make it more accessible and appealing as a broad, enthusiastic overview. In particular, The Farthest focuses heavily on the Golden Record, an album of music and pictures sent on both Voyagers to represent humanity to any alien life that might someday encounter the probes. The Voyager crew spends a bit of time lamenting the fact that the Golden Record got so much more press in the 1970s than the mission itself. (One of the film’s best stories involves a halfassed press conference about the record, thrown together at a low-rent regional hotel, in a partitioned conference room with a raucous Polish wedding taking place on the other side of the wall.) Still, it’s easy to see why an effort to sum up our species on a single LP became a human-interest story, and Reynolds follows in the wake of her journalist forebears, returning again and again to the process of curating the record, and the nature of its final contents.

And ultimately, the same human element makes The Farthest as a movie. Carl Sagan, seen in file footage, emerges as a benevolent public figurehead for the project, but other participants mirror his humor and his affection for the Voyagers and their mission. Without overtly commenting on the contrast, Reynolds matches shots between her interviewees in the 1970s and 1980s, holding NASA press conferences or dancing at a mission-completion celebration, and shots of them today, decades older, but no less invested in what their younger selves accomplished. The Farthest has a time-capsule quality at points. “You can only explore the Solar System for the first time once,” one interviewee says in the opening segment. But the film is at its best when it regards the Voyager probes not as a completed past project but as an ongoing experiment, a living part of history still being carried out by living people who, like their spacecraft, have aged over the past 40 years, but are still fully relevant.

What should it be rated?

There’s a tiny bit of skin in the film — the nude human figures on the controversial Pioneer plaques, and a photograph NASA rejected for the Golden Record, featuring two nude people — but the film openly snorts at the puritanical scolds who complained those images were pornographic, and so should we. Otherwise, The Farthest is the purest kind of G-rated educational film, designed to be accessible to all ages, and appropriate for them as well.

How can I actually watch it?

The Farthest debuts on PBS on Wednesday, August 23rd.