Taught to use 4K digital cameras, International Space Station astronauts provided much of the footage for the latest Imax science feature.
A Beautiful Planet uses its uncommon the vantage point — the modules of the International Space Station — to posit a concept of Earth as a kind of spacecraft for its inhabitants, self-sustaining but vulnerable. The creative partnership between Imax vet Toni Myers and NASA, with a good portion of the spectacular large-format imagery captured by astronauts, is sheer visual poetry as well as a primer on climate change. Though the transitions from wonder to warning aren’t always smooth, the stunning feature is sure to evoke feelings of awe and stewardship in young would-be scientists and older viewers alike.
Zeroing in on the Milky Way, the film opens by emphasizing Earth’s smallness in a vast universe and the rare combination of conditions that have made it a world of water and life. The elegant narration is written by Myers and delivered with engaging warmth by Jennifer Lawrence. Four astronauts provide voiceover commentary as well, lending touches of dry humor and deeply felt emotion.
Myers (who also serves as editor) includes footage of ISS crew members at work and play, providing insights into not only such day-to-day matters as hygiene and exercise, but also the teamwork required to disengage from a space suit, the dangers and discomforts that each space walk presents, and the logistical complications that arise when a SpaceX craft arrives with fresh supplies.
But the bulk of the ISS material, which was shot over a 15-month period, looks out from the station, not at its inner workings. Cinematographer James Neihouse and Myers, who previously collaborated on Hubble 3D, trained three crews to use 4K cameras, and Planet marks the first space-themed Imax production to rely solely on such digital equipment rather than more cumbersome film cameras.
The vistas are sometimes framed by the solar panels of the station, sometimes by the bay windows of the Cupola, a viewing-platform module. But they always offer a dazzling perspective on the interconnectedness of the planet’s geography, weather and human activities. As to the latter category, it’s not all environmental degradation — some of the most breathtaking moments in the film are its nighttime views of cities, as precise and extravagant as metallic paint on black velvet.
Halfway through, the film pivots to directly address the issue of threatened landscapes — deforestation in Madagascar and Brazil, drought in California, collapsing glaciers — and the effects of fossil fuel use. Though the narration is always eloquent, it can feel mechanical as it segues back and forth between odes to pristine beauty and calls for renewable energy, however urgently interconnected the two are.
The imagery never falters, though, in its seamless combination of views from space, material shot close to Earth’s surface, and computer visualizations and animation. Whether rushing across coastal waters, looking down upon the bright burst of thunderstorms or marveling at the eye of a typhoon, the feature builds an inspired, lyrical portrait of our planetary home.
It also makes time to consider the possibility of “another Earth” and, in an exceptionally lovely aside, to join flight engineer Kjell Lindgren as he plays “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, looking out from the Cupola, suspended in the ether.
Production company: Imax Entertainment in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Narrator: Jennifer Lawrence
With: Samantha Cristoforetti, Kjell Lindgren, Terry Virts, Barry E. Wilmore
Director-screenwriter-producer: Toni Myers
Co-producer: Judy Carroll
Executive producer: Graeme Ferguson
Director of photography: James L. Niehouse
Editor: Toni Myers
Composers: Micky Erbe, Maribeth Solomon
Sound designer: Peter Thillaye
Space operations consultant: Marsha Ivins
Rated G, 46 minutes