While watching The Farthest, a new Irish documentary about NASA’s Voyager Programme, I quickly found myself flooded with ideas and images which expanded the limits of what I held to be intelligible, confronted, as I was, by questions relating to the complexion of the universe. What is the nature of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a super-cyclone centuries old? Why doesn’t the boundary of our Solar System (known as the Heliosheath) exhibit a uniform shape? Could Europa, a moon of Jupiter, support microbial life? How can the mathematics of scientists on Earth be so precise, as to measure exactly where a space probe will be a decade and a half after its launch? Best of all: would an alien civilization understand what ‘music’ is?
The source of the inspiration for these questions isn’t fiction, but hard science: in 1977, NASA launched two probes into space, Voyager One and Voyager Two, the primary mission of each of which was to record images of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. Their secondary role, and the one they’re still fulfilling to this day, is one of interstellar exploration. In 2013 Voyager One went beyond the bounds of our Solar System and Voyager Two isn’t far behind. Moreover, each spacecraft is fitted with what is known as the Golden Record, an actual phonograph record that contains curated data about the human race, for the purpose of educating conscious beings from another planet, should they exist. The Voyager probes are then, in a very literal sense, ambassadors for humanity.
Speaking with Emer Reynolds, writer and director of the documentary and self-confessed “space geek”, I find that this is someone completely at home with the mind-bending rules of cosmology. At the beginning of our conversation she casually informs me that there are two major theories concerning the expansion of our universe: “One of the theories is that it will expand and collapse, and expand and collapse, and continue in this vein for all time, but the other theory is that it will simply keep expanding. And the ultimate end of an ever-expanding universe will be that every atom in existence will be infinitely separated from every other atom.”
As this snapshot of our conversation makes apparent, Reynolds is an extremely invigorating presence, with a mesmeric capacity to talk about macrophysics as easily as she does high-concept literature (she especially loves feminist science-fiction dystopias). Before I am utterly swept away by her limpid thought process, I ask her how she began in the Irish film industry, where she has been known predominantly as an award-winning editor.
“[As an undergraduate] I ended up doing Maths & Physics in Trinity, and joined the Film Society there. We were making short films, and in fact the first film I ever worked on starred Anne Enright, who went on to win a Man Booker Prize, and was directed by Alan Gilson, a well-known Irish filmmaker, colleague, and a great friend of mine… After that I just really wanted to work in film and got lucky enough to be taken on after college by the editor we got to know at that time. You learn on the job, so I started as an assistant and worked my way up… I loved it. I loved the story-telling, the aesthetic pleasure of it all. And I always wanted to direct so I directed some short dramas.”
Later on in her career, after editing scores of television and feature films (including Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse in 2009), Emer “got asked to co-direct Here Was Cuba with John Murray, and that was my first foray into documentary directing, which, weirdly, had never really occurred to me. I had edited loads of documentaries and directed dramas, but had never thought to direct documentaries. Which is curious, as I am extremely political, passionate and opinionated.”
2013’s Here Was Cuba was a documentary that interrogated the events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1968, using, amongst its many historical sources, never-before-heard recordings of conversations between President John F. Kennedy and his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. It was an incredible undertaking, especially for someone for had never helmed a feature documentary before, but Reynolds found the whole process enthralling. “As soon as I did Here Was Cuba, I really loved it, I found my real passion. It’s very stimulating, it’s very creative, it’s very curious, you’re researching all this stuff you love.”
Energized by the experience, Reynolds tells me that, afterwards, she and Murray “were discussing a number of projects, where we’d like to go next, what we’d like to do, and discovered in each other a tremendous love of space and a bit of an obsession with Voyager… We’d seen that there were TV documentaries but it had never been made on the big screen before. Amazingly… So we just started chatting about it and literally at that moment NASA announced that Voyager One had left our Solar System… So we were like ‘Oh its back in the news!’ I wrote it really quick, over a week or two. We started getting it out there, and we got huge interest straight away.”
Having received the approbation of NASA – “they were delighted” – and applying her now-trademark exhaustive approach to research, Reynolds sought out all of those who had worked directly on the Voyager program. “We had an intense research period where we were trying to find not only everyone who was involved, as many as we could, but also the great storytellers… We went on a tour of America and just basically met loads of people involved with Voyager, trying to find someone who could really let us into their heart.”
This latter aspect was key to Reynolds’ vision for the film. Despite her obvious penchant for abstract reasoning and erudition, she felt instantly that The Farthest “wasn’t going to be narrowly scientific – we were trying to do the whole story, the human story, the poetry.” And the emotional resonances that pervade the film are striking. Sitting in the audience, listening to one of the engineers talk about the sense of grief he experienced just prior to space launch, you can’t help but be moved. These NASA scientists weren’t high-functioning automatons indifferent to the value of their production, they were men and women who truly loved the fruit of their labour. “My big three were: humanity, honesty and humour. We wanted to tell that story through real people, and their unbridled enthusiasm. Some of the people in the film are in their 70s, their 80s, and yet they’re talking like school kids, they’re talking like children about this great joyous adventure. It’s so compelling.”
Compelling is certainly the word for it. You can’t take your eyes of the screen as the images from Voyager begin to appear, showing in striking detail the surfaces of planets which had only ever been glimpsed through telescopes, millions of miles away. Furthermore, putting distance to one side, the film exhibits time in a fascinating way, as Emer elegantly notes: “One of my favourite parts of the film is its commentary on time. On a very ordinary level you’re talking about actual time, the 1970s to now, and we’re saying to ourselves ‘Oh, the computing power they had then, isn’t it mad’. And then there’s… the personalities in the film growing older, who are all young people in their 20s and 30s at the start of their careers when they’re building this spacecraft. And you map them through the film, through the archive, and ultimately to the interviews. They get older, their life is passing, and they’re still watching what’s going on with the spacecraft. And then, there’s that big cosmic time, where you’re talking about this little craft, that we sent out, which will outlive us – a mote in the universe’s history.”
This facet of the Voyager story, its status as a vehicle for the Golden Record and thus a marker of our civilization’s existence, is one that especially intrigues Reynolds: “It really matters to us, that idea. I don’t know if it’s a gravestone or a legacy-document, but it matters to us, the possibility that somebody might know we were here once. It’s very human. And that’s all to do with our art. We make books, we make films, we make songs, in order to leave a legacy. We do it with our children as well. In all these ways we say ‘I was here.’” Concerning the likelihood that the Golden Record will ever transmit its message to another sentient species, Reynolds affirms that “every single interviewee, 28 of the world’s smartest scientists and engineers, said that there was no doubt there were civilizations out there. The numbers simply compel it. The size of the universe, the number of galaxies within it – it’s almost statistically impossible for there not to be… But, though there may be millions, even billions of civilizations out there, we may never meet them. They’re too far away, in space and time.”
Before we have to take leave of one another, Reynolds relates a final thought. “There were two interesting stories. One was about Jimmy Carter, who was the President at the time it was launched, and he put a message on the Golden Record which is shown at the start of the film. He said, “We are attempting to survive our own time, so that we may live into yours.” Which is fantastic, really powerful. But he wouldn’t record it, because he was embarrassed about his accent… As a result the Golden Record was kicked off by the General Secretary of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, who also made a beautiful speech. But Waldheim was subsequently revealed to have had a dark Nazi past. And this is interesting to me because, one of the criticisms levelled at the Golden Record is that it showed a very positive bias – they didn’t show war, they didn’t show poverty, they didn’t show nuclear bombs. They themselves will admit to this, but they also laugh at the fact that, so focused were they on presenting the positive aspects of humanity, they didn’t realize at the time – how could they? – that they allowed a Nazi to open the Record. So, no matter what you try to do, the truth comes out. No matter how much you try to sanitize it, we really are ourselves.”
With that, Reynolds departs, and I admit, I feel somewhat bereft – the surge of arresting ideas has come to a close. But I glance up into the sky and am cheered, knowing that, somewhere out there, a piece of humanity is carrying our trace across the galaxy, further than I can readily understand. With Voyager above us, how could you feel alone? As Reynolds said, more than once: ““It’s consoling that Voyager is out there.”
The Farthest is in selected cinemas now. @TheFarthestFilm #TheFarthest
Words: Tom Lordan
Photo: Killian Broderick