Movie Review: The Farthest (2017)
During the end credits, one of the talking heads/scientists questions the off-camera documentarian’s use of the word “she” to describe the two Voyagers that we sent into space in 1977 to collect data and send out a multilingual message of greeting, Mozart and Chuck Berry to other potential life forms. He says, no, we don’t anthropomorphize the Voyager spacecraft, adding, with a twinkle, “They wouldn’t like it.”
We need that twinkle because anthropomorphizing Voyager is part of what we, and this doc, have been doing for 90 minutes. It’s why the doc has such emotional heft.
12 billion and counting
“The Farthest” is a good intro doc for idiots like me who haven’t been paying attention. I mostly knew Voyager from its reincarnation as V’ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I didn’t know both Voyagers were still out there. I didn’t know that in 2012 Voyager I became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. I didn’t know what “interstellar space” was.
Distance is a big part of the anthropomorphization. We see (through digital animation) how far it’s gone, and we see (through actual photos it’s sent back) how far away we are, and we can’t help but feel a pang of ... loss? Concern? Solicitousness? It travels at 10 miles per second, to where no man has gone before, and it’s surrounded by the vast cold and not much else. It doesn’t even have close encounters with planets anymore: Jupiter, Saturn, and for Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune. It doesn’t even have the company of the other Voyager: Voyager 1 is years ahead of 2 and on a different trajectory. Our greatest stories, from Iliad/Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” are about going out and returning home, and the Voyagers can’t do the second. They can only send back messages. Increasingly distant messages.
That may be the thing that stunned me most watching this. How do we still communicate with these guys? How are we able to tell 2 to turn and take a picture of our solar system as it’s leaving it? I sometimes have trouble getting a signal from a router down the hallway and we can communicate with a spacecraft 2.7 billion miles away? Or, now, 12 billion miles?
And this is with mid-’70s technology! Each is the size of a gangly bus, and for each, its total memory is, according to one scientist, “240 thousand times less than in your smart phone.” You do a double-take. “Wait, did he say 240 or ... Really? 240 thousand? Whoooaaaaa.” You think of all Voyager has done despite those limitations, and all that we haven’t with the world at our fingertips.
We get a few pop culture moments. The Beatles, or one of its reps, apparently turned down the chance to be on the gold record we sent into the farthest reaches of space, which is why Chuck Berry is on it instead. (Are the Rolling Stones miffed they weren’t asked?) We see a clip of SNL psychics talking up the future news in 1978, one of whom, Steve Martin, says the big news story will be the four words we hear back from the farthest reaches of space, which indicate intelligent life elsewhere: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But there’s no “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or other sci-fi incarnations here. It’s science.
I kept flashing on sci-fi, though. Ten years ago, I wrote a short history of alien-invasion movies for MSNBC, and what stood out during the research—the long hours watching those hokey movies—was the absolute paranoia of ’50s movies versus Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977:
At no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
The Voyagers, which were sent into space the same year “Close Encounters” was released, assumed benevolence, too. We not only sent our music and messages and photos, we indicated where we were in case anyone wanted to come visit. Can you imagine if NASA attempted that today? What Fox News would say? Or Rush or Drudge? One scientist/talking head says here, “There’s never going to be another mission like it. It’s the first and last of its own kind,” but I’m curious why. Why aren’t we interested enough to make it happen again? Because of the paranoia? Because there’s no money in it? Because in space, no one can hear you profit?
The long and winding road
“The Farthest” isn’t even an American documentary. It’s Irish. It’s written and directed by Emer Reynolds, who works as an editor in the Irish film industry, but who’s done a few documentaries over the years: shorts one, TV ones, one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now this. She’s a big science geek, and did a whistle-stop tour of the U.S. to interview our extant Voyager scientists. What she comes away with is glorious.
Reynolds gives us a lot of shots of the earth looking up from a deep below, and we get the computer simulations of the Voyagers, as well as the actual photos they took, but what makes the doc work—and cue John Ford, please—is the human faces of these scientists: their smarts, enthusiasms, and pure joy in the journey. That we sent this piece of ourselves out there, and it’s still going, and it will likely still be going when you and I and all of our loved ones are long dead. “Four billion years from now,” says one, “when our sun turns into a red giant, Voyager is still going to be trucking out there, through the stars. We’ll still be out there.”