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October 27, 2008

BLAST! Yourself into the Nearest Theater

Blast_movie_poster As my last science movie review shows, making good movies about science is hard. Really, insanely, ridiculously hard.

Making movies about astronomy? Even harder.

No surprise that my expectations were low when I hopped on the New York City subway to attend Nature Magazine's Imagine Science Film Festival last week.

Thursday's feature was a movie called BLAST!* by writer/director/producer Paul Devlin, who has a few Emmy's under his belt. * Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope

What's it about? Brother Mark Devlin's 5-year odyssey to send a giant telescope to the edge of space... on a balloon.

Yet after sitting through the flick, I realized that Paul discovered the magic formula for a successful mainstream science movie:

  1. drop the F-bomb three or more times within first 60 seconds of film
  2. cover all scientific concepts in <18.3 seconds
  3. show boatloads of amazing visuals
  4. use Hollywood-style plot progression
  5. reveal personal struggle in unflattering detail
  6. ask scientists about religion

Blast_balloon_launch_2 First things first: I won't bore you with a synopsis because you can get that here. But I will say that you see two launches of BLAST, and each ends in the fantastic destruction of the telescope. For example: being dragged into bits by skidding 120 miles over Antarctic ice on the end of a parachute. Gut-wrenching, yes, but strangely awesome.

Second: Go see BLAST!. Whether a nerd like me or someone only mildly curious about science, it's a crowd-pleaser. Aside from a few words such as !@#$ here and %^&* there, it's also a family-friendly affair.

BLAST! helps you see first-hand just how difficult, amazing and rewarding these kinds of scientific efforts can be. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll walk away astounded that people can actually send a telescope to the edge of space and forever change how we see and think about about the universe.

Blast_movie_teamWhat really struck me about this movie, however, was the artistry of it -- and I'm not talking about the cinematography.

When you finish watching, you're not entirely sure you've watched a "science movie." The explanations are cut down and wrapped up with visually engaging segments, and never get into detail that is a sure-fire way to kill a good movie.

I can almost hear Jane and Joe Viewer saying, "Weird -- I thought science movies were supposed to be awful and boring."

Zounds be, but I think Joe and Jane will actually grasp everything that happens in the movie:

  • Reason for launching high-altitude observatories? Roger.
  • Sub-millimeter wavelength astronomy? No problem.
  • Space time and relativity? Check.
  • Dark matter? Got it.
  • Dark energy? C'mon.
  • Scientific paper-writing, publishing and citation? Child's play.

Paul_mark_devlin_blast I type this with confidence because after the showing in New York City, Mark and Paul got on stage to take questions from an audience of about 100.

Although there was a Neil deGrasse Tyson sighting, I'd say most people were clearly not scientists or even science enthusiasts. Many were film nerds, others tagged along with friends and family and some there simply to watch a free movie.

Paul Devlin said screen tests with "average" people went swimmingly, and based on the chuckles and smiling faces I saw when I looked around (even small kids), I'd say that's a valid conclusion.

As for scientists themselves? Including his brother Mark, Paul said scientists weren't entirely happy with the movie. They felt it gave too much screen time to personal sacrifice, exciting plot and -- naughtiest if all -- religion (personally, I felt it was delivered in a tasteful and open-minded manner).

"Where are all of the graphs and numbers and figures?" is what Paul said the scientists asked. If this was a movie for science purists, I'd be asking the same thing. But this flick was for everyone.

During the Q&A session, Paul said he'd like to get a DVD to every high school student in America, and I think that's a fine idea -- especially since it shows students building the telescope and traveling all over the planet. If that isn't inspiration for a career choice, I don't know what is.

Blast_mark_devlin_telescope The good news is that BLAST! has attracted the funding of BBC, Discovery Channel Canada and a handful of European networks. The bad news: the film has yet to pay off all of its bills six months after a world premiere.

"We've had problems in the U.S.," Paul said of pitching the film to American media companies -- including one I happen to be very familiar with. "Programmers hear 'science' and run away screaming."

If that's the truth, consider me depressed and the state of indifference to science in the country I love worse than ever.

Photos: Courtesy Paul Devlin, BLAST! the Movie

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About the Author

  • Dave Mosher is Discovery’s Space site producer and fancies the idea of living on the moon or Mars.

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