Monday, March 22, 2010

Hubble 3-D

I guess I'm an astronomy nerd. Scott asked me whether I was one last night at the Chlotrudis awards after-party , when I mentioned that Hubble 3-D was one of the movies I'd seen this weekend. If I am, though, I'm a lapsed one. I don't visit or on a daily or even weekly basis, despite the fact that they offer at least one image daily that is a worthy screen saver

Look through my attic, though, and you'll find evidence of previous extreme astro-nerdiness: Recordings of the Moon missions on vinyl. A copy of Roy A. Gallant's National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe that has completely fallen apart. Stuff like that.

I'm not sure why I stopped being so rabidly interested in this stuff. A certain amount is high school and college, expanding interests in some directions and focusing them in others. Some is the crushing, horrifying loss of two shuttles in my lifetime, which seemed to virtually shut down the space program for years at a time. Yes, this makes me a fair-weather fan, although I've remained eager to devour space exploration things that appear on my radar, and remain your go-to guy for when you need an argument as to why science fiction could use more science, and not less.

One of the reasons why I think this is encapsulated in something that I couldn't really fit into the EFC review: That the visual effects sequences are awe-inspiring, perhaps even more so because they come from what is possible and real. I loved Avatar, but my favorite bit of effects is one from the very start, where we see the ship that brings Sully to Pandora, and it's meticulously researched and reflective, and even that doesn't send the chills down my spine that the visuals in Hubble do. It's why science fiction is so much more exciting than fantasy; there's something you can potentially get your hands on someday, rather than just a shared delusion.

Oh, and the line? That the web of galaxies and clusters we see in the end was science literally showing us the shape and structure of the universe, and that this shape and structure is so grand that religious viewers will see it as evidence of the hand of a creator, while us more agnostic people will see... Well, I couldn't come up with something quite so majestic, and it didn't seem like an appropriate place to get into science-versus-superstition stuff, especially making the superstition sound cool.

(I also wanted to compare the feeling of that last scene to the last shot of 2001, just in how it creates the feeling of a larger universe too vast for our merely-human minds to comprehend, but couldn't quite make that work either.)

Anyway, I'm pretty sure I'll see this again while it's at the Aquarium. $9.95 isn't a bad price for a few moments of genuine awe.

Hubble 3-D

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2010 at the New England Aquarium (first-run)

The Hubble Space Telescope did not make a great first impression; its launch in 1989 was quickly followed by the discovery that a warped mirror rendered it no more powerful than ground-based telescopes. This got a lot of publicity, far more than the later repairs and upgrades got, which is a terrible shame. As Hubble 3-D attempts to demonstrate, the Hubble's legacy should not be the manufacturing defect that the beginning of its life, but the steady stream of amazing images and data it has provided us with since.

Hubble 3-D spends some time tracking the instrument's history, from footage of it being assembled on the ground to its launch on the thirty-first space shuttle mission (STS-31) to the repair mission on STS-61 to the more recent debate on whether or not to allow it to expire as it reached the end of its operation lifespan. It's no spoiler to say that the decision was made to upgrade its sensors, and so the majority of the time we spend in Earth orbit is with the crew of the shuttle Discovery on STS-125, particularly commander Scott Altman and mission specialists Michael Good, Michael Massimino, and Megan McArthur.

The footage of the mission is impressive, as it can't help but be: No matter what issues one might have with 3-D when applied to regular feature films, I imagine that few would deny that it and the large IMAX screen are useful in this context, allowing the audience to experience the full range of movement possible in a free-fall environment in an immersive way that no other medium can. The clarity of the exterior shots when the astronauts are doing the repair work on Hubble is amazing, as well - large format film and no atmosphere does wonders. The only downside is that there's not much movement possible in the shuttle's bay, and the innards of Hubble are so densely packed that, while the narration describes the difficulties faced in the repair, it is often very difficult to see first-hand.

While that's a bit disappointing, the pictures we get as a result of those repairs and upgrades certainly are not. Much of it is technically computer-generated imagery, but that's necessary; the Hubble doesn't have an eyepiece that an IMAX camera could be fastened to. What it does have is sensors and stabilizers that allow it to take very high-resolution photographs, with enough parallax to make three-dimensional modeling possible. One of the most impressive demonstrations of this comes in a zoom into the Orion Nebula, a "stellar nursery" that provides an uncommonly clear view of hundreds of solar systems forming in gaseous cocoons which feature comet-tails because of the intense solar wind being produced by the central star. It ends with an image of one of these systems, a snapshot of what our own star system may have looked like five billion years ago, which is as beautiful as it is awe-inspiring.

The film could do with maybe packing a few more moments like that into its brief running time. There are moments which could be cut or re-used footage from director Toni Myers's Space Station 3-D or other NASA films, informative as a kid's first introduction to spaceflight but not exactly Hubble-specific. The earnest narration (provided by Leonardo DiCaprio) occasionally asks the question of whether there may be other life out there, but exoplanets are not among the images we're given (as powerful as it is, some things are still too small and too far away for great images).

Especially since what we can see is so amazing that there's no need to undercut it. Hubble finishes with a sequence that can legitimately be called awesome without devaluing the word, a glimpse into the furthest reaches of the Universe that reveals not just how tiny our world is in the grand scheme of things, but also a hint of that scheme itself. It's a humbling sight, the sort to make one exit the theater with shivers on an unseasonably warm day - a sensation worth treasuring and which ignites (or reignites) the curiosity of those who see it.

Also at eFilmCritic

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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