It’s rare for a film to make one swell with pride about something he or she had no direct hand in, but “The Farthest” accomplishes that feat with aplomb. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that Emer Reynolds’ documentary pulls off such an exceptional deed, given that its subject is one of mankind’s greatest achievements: Voyager 1 and 2, the spacecraft that NASA launched in 1977 on a “grand tour” of our solar system’s remote planets, and the vast stretches of interstellar space that lay beyond. Boasting traditional non-fiction aesthetics as graceful as its story is chills-inducing, “The Farthest” should be an ideal sight to see on a New York or Los Angeles theatrical big-screen this Friday, before subsequently arriving on PBS on August 23 in a shorter form.
Reynolds amasses everyone who was anyone on the Voyager operation, crafting a comprehensive firsthand account of the scientific effort that went into the project (“the big mission” of the 20th century), as well as the thinking that first drove it into creation. The nominal objective was clear: to take photographs of the outermost planets from an up-close-and-personal vantage point, and to send back relevant related data about those worlds and their surrounding areas. Though there were many hiccups along the way – this being an endeavor where even the slightest of miscalculations or unforeseen events could lead to instantaneous disaster – it triumphantly realized those goals, beaming back across the cosmos black-and-white snapshots of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (and some of their most eye-catching satellite moons) that, when presented in Reynolds’ doc, may well inspire goosebumps.
How the Voyager probes made it as far as they did is a prime focus of “The Farthest,” which details their use of planets’ gravitational fields to slingshot themselves on to their next fly-by pit stop. In these discussions — during which it’s revealed that the crafts were fashioned with the option to be reprogrammed for future secondary objectives, should the need arise — the sheer ingenuity of Voyager’s many architects comes into sharp relief. In one significant respect, Reynolds’ film is a tribute to mankind’s imaginative creativity, and its belief in itself to find a way to reach beyond previously unapproachable limits of time, space and thought.
But the Voyagers weren’t just glorified cameras; rather, they were humanity’s proxies for exploration, and for communication. Each craft carried with it a golden record (“the heartbeat of the ship itself”) onto which had been loaded two hours of audio recordings, including greetings from Earth in various languages, 100 photographs, and a wide variety of music, including Beethoven, African and Indian compositions, and — as a Steve Martin sketch for “Saturday Night Live” made famous — Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” They were, in effect, messages in bottles, intended not only to inform possible extraterrestrial life about us, but also to assert our very existence (i.e. We Were Here!) long after our civilization, and world itself, has ceased to be.
Employing a conventional combination of interviews, archival video, CGI vistas of the Voyagers in transit, pop music and expressionistic decorative imagery (water droplets falling on the ground, spinning models of the solar system), “The Farthest’s” own construction is hardly daring. Nonetheless, in its many speakers’ recollections of first gazing upon a distant world, or overcoming a near-catastrophic technical obstacle, or waxing philosophic about the underlying importance of the Voyagers’ Homeric expedition, Reynolds’ film conveys a legitimate, stirring sense of awe about mankind’s innate desire for adventure, discovery and communion with all that surrounds it. Moreover, it expresses — per Carl Sagan, whose presence naturally looms large over these proceedings — how Voyager underscored both our insignificance, and our vital importance, in the universe. As imaging scientist Larry Soderblom says about the crafts, which to this day continue to travel into the great, empty unknown, “Voyager was part of us.”