Humans have always been fascinated by space. The unknown limits and interstellar beauty are beyond anything we have here on Earth, and filmmakers have been trying their best to imitate the vastness of space through film and TV.
Right now, we are finding ourselves at the crossroads of space travel and filmmaking, almost a new type of space race that finds Elon Musk in the realm of the private space industry. The entertainment industry has entered low-Earth orbit, and it’s poised to stick around whether veteran astronauts want it or not. Netflix’s latest space-related project, Return to Space, reflects the streamer’s ongoing investment in the new space era, and it’s the second Netflix show produced in partnership with Musk’s SpaceX.
Return to Space is directed by Oscar-winner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and follows the buildup to the first crewed mission of Musk’s SpaceX-designed Dragon spacecraft through the perspective of Musk’s entrepreneurial drive to dominate the field. The documentary follows the tolls on the veteran astronauts’ lives and the events that unfold against the stunning array of NASA-approved footage from the flights, which include spacewalks on the ISS loaded with breathtaking first-person views of the planet against the vast darkness of the universe.
Although the film orbits around Musk, the filmmakers don’t treat him as a god. Instead, they assemble gripping tension around the flights, reinforcing the dangers and risks of space travel.
This isn’t the first space-based project to hit streaming service. Amazon Prime live-streamed Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launches back in March of this year, which made William Shatner the first American movie star in space, and a Russian film production launched into orbit last year to film parts of their film at the International Space Station. Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman are still hoping to follow that path with a Universal project that remains on the backburner.
Return to Space’s dedication to framing Musk’s unexpected ability to win a contract with NASA despite his controversial reputation gives a wider look at the public’s conflicting feelings about the tech entrepreneur. While the film addresses Musk’s eccentric public antics from smoking weed with Joe Rogan to tweeting about taking Tesla public out of nowhere, it also welcomes contrast to perceptions of the “billionaire space race” that has cohered around Musk, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Bezos’ Blue Origin by looking at the bigger picture.
'Return to Space'Credit: Netflx
“The general public doesn’t really understand it,” director Vasarhelyi said in an interview with IndieWire. “The billionaires in space is an old narrative.”
Vasarhelyi didn’t address Musk’s lack of space travel because the emphasis isn’t concerned with being in space. Instead, Vasarhelyi is emphasizing the people willing to put their lives at risk—in Return to Space, that is the astronauts themselves. Even though the Dragon capsule is far safer than its predecessors, a single misstep could result in instant death for anyone on board.
“A lot of people take for granted how dangerous space travel is,” said Chin. “I mean, strapping two rockets with thousands of tons of rocket propellant to yourself—these astronauts’ lives are literally in the hands of scientists.”
It is just a matter of time before elite members of our society start taking trips up to low-Earth orbit, but astronaut Karen Nyberg cautions that an influx of non-professional astronauts making dangerous trips to experience life in zero gravity. She said, “You have frustrating days and good ones up there. We really have learned expeditionary behavior to control our own emotions and help our crewmates when they’re having a rough time. It could turn into a challenge when you have more people in space who don’t think in that way.”
For now, the low-Earth orbit is reserved for the rich and NASA, but change is coming. Eventually, filmmakers will have access to space to create films that are set in a place that most of us may never get the chance to see. It’s astonishing to think about that, but is the risk worth it?
You can stream Return to Space on Netflix now.
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