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New Documentary Shows How James Webb Telescope Could Change Our Relationship to the Universe

SXSW Review: "The Hunt for Planet B" shows why searching for life on other planets is worth the effort.

the hunt for planet b james webb

“The Hunt for Planet B”

SXSW

The James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t generated as many headlines as climate change activism or another relief bill, but its planned launch in October 2021 could yield even greater long-term impact. After nearly 15 years of turnaround, the promising Hubble replacement will peer out at ancient galaxies and stars, possibly uncovering distant planets hospitable to life in process. Director Nathaniel Kahn’s “The Hunt for Planet B” puts that perspective in a much broader context than the bureaucracy responsible for grounding the Webb telescope all these years, showing how its success could galvanize a community of passionate stargazers and eventually change our relationship to the universe itself.

Kahn, who previously directed the 2016 short “Into the Unknown” about the team behind the telescope, has expanded that project into a rambling, existential assemblage of amateur astronomers and dedicated scientists — most of whom are women — musing on the potential of life on other planets. Kahn’s earnest overview is not always the sum of its parts: It lacks the awe-inspiring production values that make “Cosmos” so fun and the gravitas of astronomically inclined documentaries like “Nostalgia for the Light.” However, Kahn just has to point his camera in the right places to capture many entrancing details, as “The Hunt for Planet B” celebrates a community whose enthusiasm for the possibility of life on other planets is downright infectious.

Carl Sagan may have popularized the search for extraterrestrial life among “billions and billions” of stars on the original “Cosmos,” but the field has come a long way since then. “The Hunt for Planet B” details the eruption in the discovery of exoplanets — that is, planets in other solar systems — over the past three decades, and imaginative possibilities entailed by the confirmation of their existence. It opens with a thrilling CGI visit to one of the seven terrestrial bodies orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star 40-odd lightyears away, and therefore on the receiving end of audio signals sent from Earth in the ’70s. Throughout the movie, Kahn returns to this location through the musings of various researchers as they work through a series of intriguing questions: How would possible intelligent life forms process Earth through the time capsule we sent their way? Would they predict the future of climate change or discern the nuances of our culture?

These ideas dangle alongside many others as the movie travels from various observatories to the NASA research surrounding Webb, providing a sort of extrasolar science 101 guide in the process. It touches on the quest to find planets in the “Goldilock Zone,” that celestial sweet spot where life can exist, and considers the ramifications of discovering life elsewhere even if the researchers who uncover it can never visit it themselves. Viewed as a whole, they show how the field mandates an open-mindedness to research rather than firm results, which is part of the reason why congressional hearings rarely yield constructive results. In one of them, sampled in fleeting archival footage, a scientist pressed to provide a timeline for discovering habitable planets says it could happen “within a decade.” But Kahn’s documentaries show why those deadlines are a red herring.

Instead, the movie’s appeal turns on the degree of intellectual curiosity it elicits from its subjects. As such, it struggles through a clunky acknowledgement of the many women it puts on camera, rather than allowing their accomplishments to simply stand as fact. Kahn forces the story into heavy-handedness in other ways as well, and his occasional offscreen presence as he peppers his subjects with questions interrupts the underlying strength of their observations.

Those setbacks stand out, however, because the people make for such absorbing figures in the first place. Many of the talking heads from the Webb team, including Amy Lo, Gregory Robinson, and project manager Bill Ochs, show how the project has evolved into a diverse team fully committed to a new phase of astronomical research. SETI’s Maggie Turnbull and Elinor Gates add further profundity to the nature of the quest at hand, though the bleeding heart of “The Hunt for Planet B” belongs to extrasolar researcher Sara Seager, who recalls the loss of her husband and its impact on the quest for meaning in her work. She’s the emotional backbone of a movie that doesn’t always know where to devote its time, but registers as an affecting blend of soul-searching inquiry and intellectual rigor whenever Seager comes onscreen.

To its credit, “The Hunt for Planet B” treasures the humanity of its characters above all. One clever framing device, built around an amateur astronomer setting up his gear at Walden pond, ends up connecting to a different thread of the narrative and leads to the touching finale. Everyone in “The Hunt for Planet” radiates with a pleasant enthusiasm for what they do. There is no discernible conflict among them. Politicians who question the costly endeavors of sending telescopes to space would do well to consider the movie’s argument for the sincerity of the science community, and the possibility that the same researchers who could find life on other planets could be the last bastions of good will on this one.

Throughout this exploration, Kahn routinely cuts back to the Webb, with its vast, golden mirrors shifting around in an immense laboratory as it prepares for launch. Above all, the movie makes a case for the tremendous resources on display by attaching them to genuine investment in the stakes at hand. When the telescope gets to work, it may not deliver firm answers for a world that demands instant gratification. But it will provide many reasons to keep looking up, and “The Hunt for Planet B” captures many of them.

Grade: B-

“The Hunt For Planet B” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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