Short of putting Emmanuel Lubezki through astronaut training, it’s difficult to imagine more rapturously beautiful images of the Earth from orbit than those supplied by “A Beautiful Planet,” the latest collaboration between Imax and NASA. Through an International Space Station module called “The Cupola” — a hemisphere of windows installed in 2010 — and 4K digital cameras more compact than previous-generation Imax gear, our sparkling blue jewel of a planet looks like the centerpiece of a celestial Tiffany’s. In her follow-up to “Hubble 3D,” multitasker Toni Myers (who writes, directs, produces and edits) delivers another 45-minute, once-over-lightly mix of science and spectacle, with Jennifer Lawrence’s voiceover patching the footage together like Scotch tape.
“A Beautiful Planet” may be little more than an Epcot attraction with broader distribution, but it delivers emphatically on its title and should wow field-trip takers and large-format devotees. Myers’ cinematographer, James Neihouse, trained the astronauts to serve as camera operators aboard the ISS, and they returned with neatly composed shots of day-to-day work (and assorted tomfoolery) and a God’s-eye view of a planet in flux. The particulars of their mission are sparsely outlined, and the particulars of their personalities are sketchier still. But their vantage is rare and invaluable for the billions of “crew members” on Earth who can’t see the bigger picture.
The first trio of astronauts are an American, a Russian and an Italian—Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti, respectively—but after their six months on board, they rotate out for another expedition. There’s not much to the getting-to-know-you sections of “A Beautiful Planet,” perhaps because the astronauts have more on their agenda than serving as fly-on-the-wall documentarians.
What Myers does get is charming scenes and montages of more playful moments, like the spiky-haired Cristoforetti getting a trim or making herself an espresso, a bag of fruit floating weightlessly or the crew celebrating Christmas by leaving milk and cookies by the airlock. But Myers doesn’t have the time — or likely the footage — to explore the bonds forged among astronauts working in such close quarters or go deep into their scientific experiments.
“A Beautiful Planet” improves when it gazes down from the Cupola and showcases the fragile majesty of an Earth under duress. From space, the camera can pick up on the effects of climate change in places like Madagascar and Brazil, where deforestation has diminished resources and wiped out animal species, and the arid, hollow “ice-cream scoop” that droughts and fires have carved into the state of California.
Lawrence’s narration lays out the rudimentary basics of climate science (“An Inconvenient Truth” this is not), but the images of decaying landscapes and diminished or polluted water sources nonetheless tell a chilling story without words.
Some of the time, however, “A Beautiful Planet” is merely pretty for its own sake. Seeing Earth from outer space is a dream the film is happy to share, from the shimmering green of Aurora Borealis to the evening storms that pop like flashbulbs whenever lightning strikes. Earth is a miracle that Myers and the astronauts want no viewer to take for granted, and there’s no greater perspective than gazing through this panoramic window on the world.