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BLAST! (DVD Review)

24 Jun, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 6/28/11
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.

They’ll probably be watching this one in science classes for years to come.

Filmmaker Paul Devlin’s latest documentary, BLAST!, chronicles a team of scientists trying to unlock the mystery of the origins of the universe, and the extremes they’re willing to endure for the sake of knowledge.

Rather than devoting decades of research and millions of dollars into satellite technology, two astrophysicists — Barth Netterfield of the University of Toronto and Mark Devlin (brother of the director) of the University of Pennsylvania — have assembled a group to build a complex sensor package to be hoisted 35 kilometers up via a balloon the size of a football stadium. The ungainly craft is called BLAST, which stands for Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope. (I swear there must be an agency somewhere whose sole purpose is to come up with clever acronyms.)

Once aloft, BLAST turns its cameras toward galaxies billions of light years away, and we are told not even the Hubble space telescope is designed to track such things. The idea here is the BLAST sensors can detect types of stellar radiation blocked by the atmosphere, which in turn will give the scientists a better understanding of star formations from the early universe. Then BLAST cuts loose from the balloon and parachutes back to Earth, where the scientists can recover the data package.

The film begins in Antarctica with an inauspicious launch attempt, as the cable gets stuck on the crane mechanism that’s holding it, and BLAST collides with the truck it’s mounted on. Cut to 18 months earlier in Sweden, where the team is preparing an earlier launch attempt.

The Sweden launch, in June 2005, was actually the second use of BLAST (following a 2003 attempt in New Mexico). The four-day flight would take BLAST into Northern Canada, though the camera resolution isn’t as sharp as they hoped.

The team hopes for better results from the Antarctic launch in December 2006, where the balloon will circle the South Pole until they cut the cord. So they head down to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, the closest thing to a city there is down there, for nearly three months to build the craft and conduct the experiment.

At one point, we get a shot of the scientists getting giddy over little more than data charts being constructed by BLAST’s telemetry readings, which serves as an odd reminder about all the different ways people can view the world.

The film also briefly veers into a theology discussion, with the Christian Netterfield saying how he got into science to better understand the art of God. Mark Devlin is more of an agnostic, preferring to see the universe for what it is.

BLAST! is quick to remind us that astrophysics has the potential to change our worldview, from the discovery that Earth was not at the center of the universe, to the discover of other galaxies and the potential that we are not alone.

The Antarctic flight yielded terrific scientific results but the voyage itself was a disaster. Aside from the troubles at launch, BLAST lost contact after separation from the balloon, the chute didn’t detach after landing and ended up dragging the craft 120 miles for nearly a day. This resulted in the telescope being mostly destroyed, but just when it seems the whole documentary has been chronicling a futile endeavor, they recover the computers.

Director Devlin, brother of the lead scientist, doesn’t dwell on the science, which is simplified to about a high-school level for easier understanding. He instead offers a matter-of-fact recap of the project and its effects on the team members, mixed in with some nice animation and low-resolution shots from BLAST’s point of view above the Earth.

BLAST! has a tendency to repeat itself in parts, even with a running time of about 74 minutes.

Mark Devlin appeared on the Aug. 13, 2009, episode of "The Colbert Report" to discuss the project, a fact that is touted prominently on the DVD cover (yet the interview itself is not included as an extra).

The DVD includes about 25 minutes of deleted scenes, such as an extended tour of McMurdo and a more detailed look at the BLAST craft. There’s also a segment showing Werner Herzog visiting the team while filming his own documentary about Antarctica (which would become Encounters at the End of the World). It’s a telling statement about the shoestring budgets of science to see how much bigger Herzog’s film equipment is than the cameras used for BLAST!

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