Karl Kruszelnicki, Tamara Davis
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…ahead of the usual raft of Netflix-bound science docos.
The search for extraterrestrial life goes under the microscope – and telescope – in this handsome speculative documentary. Framed around a hypothetical exploratory mission to Minerva B, a nearby (in celestial terms) exoplanet, Living Universe uses interviews, voice over narration from celebrity scientist Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, and the events of its own fictional but reasonably rigorous central narrative to dig into the current state of play, both practical and theoretical, in extra-solar exploration.
In doing so it spreads a fairly wide net: exploring other worlds takes in a whole swathe of disparate disciplines, including jet propulsion and engineering (how will we get there?); biology, geography, and material sciences (what will we find when we get there?) and computer science and artificial intelligence theory (effectively, should we send someone else first?).
It’s this last discipline which is the most intriguing and commands the film’s focus, as the film’s fictional starship, Aurora, is piloted by an AI, Artemis, voiced by actual astrophysicist professor Tamara Davis, and a lot of time is spent ruminating on the decision-making and problem-solving skills that would be necessary for a machine intelligence to undertake such a mission.
Living Universe also speculates on the more physical technology that might be required, positing 3D printed aerial drones and spider-bots exploring Minerva B’s alien biome. The section of the film dealing with the planet’s ET wildlife is the most far-fetched, to the point of more or less wildly guessing, but it sure is pretty.
All this is related using some pretty spiffy CG to depict all the marvellous high tech ships, robots and other assorted gadgets, plus the exotic landscape of Minerva B.
However, even more engaging is the phalanx of boffins, theorists, engineers and physicists that are interviewed in the course of the doco, an enthusiastic, brilliant and utterly committed community of explorers who are hell-bent on pursuing outer-solar exploration, even if the end game may not occur until well after they’ve gone to their graves (the point is made that, like the building of medieval cathedrals, this is a generational undertaking).
Their boundless passion for this monumental job, coupled with the repeatedly stated belief that, mathematically, the universe should be absolutely teeming with life, gives Living Universe a wonderfully upbeat and optimistic tone, and puts it ahead of the usual raft of Netflix-bound science docos. In a time of ever-increasing uncertainty, there’s something to be said for a film that asks us not only to hope for a bright future, but to expect to meet some friends when we get there.