Following last year’s Encounters at the End of the World, Antarctica’s McMurdo station is given further big-screen exposure by BLAST!, but unlike Werner Herzog’s portrait of the place as “an ugly mining town” and its scientist inhabitants as weird adventuresome loners, Paul Devlin’s documentary portrays the locale as merely an interesting, uniquely situated outpost. Such conventionality is par for the course in this mildly compelling nonfiction film, which takes a just-the-facts approach to its subject, the construction and launch of a high-powered telescope attached to an enormous balloon (called BLAST) that was designed by University of Pennsylvania astrophysics professors and grad students in order to view distant stars’ formation.
Aided by functional CG panoramas of the cosmos, project lead Mark Devlin explains that the endeavor will provide unprecedented snapshots of our and other galaxies’ pasts—a feat even the Hubble telescope can’t claim—and, in doing so, will afford new insights into the universe’s birth. While the magnitude of this enterprise’s potential is amplified by computer-generated diagrams, the doc is more captivating in its depiction of the painstaking work that goes into pulling off the NASA-funded experiment, whose success hinges on a multitude of minute details being perfectly executed.
Devlin’s more rational beliefs are complemented by those of Canadian colleague Barth Netterfield, a Christian whose professional astrophysics pursuits and religious faith operate in tandem. BLAST! charts Devlin and company’s maiden Sweden-based effort to send the balloon into the stratosphere as well as their sophomore launch attempt in Antarctica with minimal aesthetic inventiveness, but with a straightforward lucidness that captures both its subject’s unquenchable inquisitiveness and intense drive. Nonetheless, whether focusing on the scientists’ toil, Devlin and Netterfield’s divergence on the issue of God, or on Devlin’s struggles to cope with separation from his wife and two young sons, the film never rises above being superficially engaging, its casual manner making it akin to a distended, average episode of PBS’s NOVA.