A Beautiful Planet is the new documentary from famed IMAX director Toni Myers. Her previous works have looked outwards into space from Earth, but here the camera is turned, looking back at Earth from the International Space Station. Filmed by the astronauts of the ISS, it’s a jaw dropping visual spectacle, featuring incredible footage of iconic landscapes from 250 miles above the surface.
Simply put, the aerial shots of Earth are just mesmerizing. From the enormous eye of Hurricane Julio, to the near constant thunderstorms over Central and East Africa, the film features one breath-taking aerial shot after another.
It also brutally exposes some of our own follies, and impact on the planet, showing the deforestation of the Amazon and Madagascar, as well as the Central Valley of California, where it appears as though, as astronaut Terry Virts puts it, someone has taken a, “giant ice cream scoop” and dug straight through the middle of the state.
And one of the most arresting shots is of Korea at night, showing the divide between the South, one of the most brightly lit and colourful areas on the planet, and the North, which is in almost total darkness, save for a few dim lights scattered around Pyongyang.
Interspersed with this are excerpts from the astronauts’ daily routines, showing how they sleep, exercise and carry out their duties. The contrast between these awesome, huge vistas, reminding us of our vulnerability, and perhaps insignificance, in the universe, and the intimate, human minutiae of the crew’s basic needs, such as washing their hair, or even enjoying a cup of espresso from the specially designed ISSpresso machine is very effective. And the genuine warmth, camaraderie of the crew, as well as their obvious joy at fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition, is great to see.
There is some excellent footage of a spacewalk, showing the downright awkwardness of trying to conduct work in the disorientating atmosphere of space, as the astronauts struggle in their huge, bulky spacesuits, bumping into things, spinning around upside down, snagging their tether ropes on all the equipment of the station – all in temperatures veering between 120 and minus 150 degrees centigrade. It’s another great illustration of the immense danger and hostility of the deceptively beautiful environment.
Unfortunately the script is a little clichéd; descriptions of “gossamer clouds”, “snaking rivers” and “teeming metropolises” abound. It’s narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, who does a fine, if perhaps unnecessary job – one suspects she is only there in order to put a big marquee-name on the poster. More revealing are the thoughts of the crew members, particularly Samantha Cristoforetti’s observation on the necessity for us all to look after our planet: “Looking at Earth from space, we need to start considering ourselves as crewmembers, not passengers. Nobody gets a free ride.”
A Beautiful Planet is an extraordinary illustration of our place in the universe, and the sheer improbability of our very existence.
It is light enough that children will be enthralled, whilst the spectacular visuals will ensure that even the most down-to-earth souls will have their head in the clouds.