From the Archives: Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know review

From the Archives: Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on MovieJawn.

Space is absolutely crazy. Staggering to think about at even the smallest scale, and mind-blowing at just a layman’s level of understanding. What is space? Why is space? How the hell can it be so big? Why is it so easy for humans to forget that we’re all clinging to a rock that is surfing through a gigantic abyss of nothingness on the wave of a gigantic, ancient explosion from which all existence is manifest, especially when the only evidence we need to remind us is immediately available by merely looking upward? It’s the kind of thing that can simultaneously humble and inspire. We look at the vast measure of the heavens and recognize our relative insignificance while at the same time feeling assured that somewhere up there, amidst the swirling energies and gigantic expanses of nothing, humankind’s answers await our inquiry.

It’s crazy. Space, man. So wild.

Until recently, the existence of one of outer space’s most mysterious concepts, the black hole, was only assumed. We thought that they might exist, based solely on the actions of the tangible bodies and energies around where we believed them to be, but since the nature of a black hole is that it completely and permanently absorbs anything unlucky enough to enter its borders, there was no output for us to study. Without light, there is nothing to see, and more importantly, nothing to photograph. But as science so regularly shows us, “impossible” is not always an absolute, and the combination of knowledge, ingenuity, and teamwork, can make anything possible. Hell, as it currently stands, Mars is a planet inhabited entirely by robots. That kicks so much ass.

Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know documents the work of a global coalition of minds in their efforts to photograph the celestial mystery we call a black hole, and does so in a way that makes it easy for me, an idiot, to understand, without doing a disservice to the complexity of the job. This means that there are many sequences where verbose physicists argue the merits of a cryptic equation that fills the entirety of a wall-sized chalkboard, but also that there are clever animations to make clear just what is being discussed. One animation, set to the soothing and intricate cello stylings of Zoe Keating, shows the distance to the hopefully photogenic black hole from earth at scale. It triggers such wonder, and if you’re like me, crippling anxiety to boot. It’s so far away. So so so so far. Like, if I left my house right now and started walking, I’d die a million times over before making even a dent in the journey (assuming I could hold my breath that long anyway).

There are two stories being followed. The first is of the many boots-on-the-ground teams of physicists and their ilk trying to capture and build the photograph of the black hole. The second follows a separate handful of geniuses, including Dr. Stephen Hawking, as they do the work of proving that, counter to what we already thought, black holes might actually have a traceable output. Every single person involved is a capital N nerd. Not the glamorous “has glasses” nerds of popular cinema, but true, dyed in the wool poindexters, and I say that with a level of respect so high that only these brilliant number crunchers and physicists could ever begin to calculate it. As an added bonus, it was a curious pleasure to see Hawking living his day to day life. Having really only seen him speak at events and such, it was fascinating to watch what it was like for him to hang out with his friends and coworkers.

As posited at the outset of the film, to get a photo of a black hole, it would require a telescope roughly the size of Earth itself. Since that’s not something we currently have access to, it was decided that the next best thing would be to coordinate a worldwide network of telescopes to collect the data required. What this means is that a global team of diverse individuals put their hulking brains together in the name of acquiring knowledge for the rest of us mush-minds. To see the enthusiasm each shares for the betterment of mankind and the expansion of our collective knowledge of the universe is a pure delight. The dedication of a large group of people who truly love to discover is infectious, and it leads to a finale that, as the monument of what has been achieved aligns with the emotional investments of everyone who worked tirelessly to make it happen, put a tear in my eye.

The Edge of All We Know is a stellar (ha!) science documentary that is as much the telling of a specific achievement as it is a paean to the altruism of intellectual pursuit. At a time when the powers that be are inclined toward cherry-picking their facts, it’s also an essential reminder that science only takes one side: that of truth and wonder. When we look into the skies and consider the enormity of space, our terrestrial problems seem insignificant. And when we look at the work that went into successfully activating what is now called the Event Horizon Telescope, it becomes clear that all of humankind’s troubles, no matter how big or small, can be solved by putting our heads together.

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