‘Return to Space’ Assessment: Netflix’s SpaceX Doc Is an Exasperating 2-Hour Industrial for Elon Musk

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The administrators of “Free Solo” and “The Rescue” stumble with an uncharacteristically uninteresting movie about SpaceX that seems like sponsored content material.

A uninteresting and airless Netflix documentary by an Oscar-winning duo whose sensible movies in regards to the highs and lows of human exploration (“Meru,” “Free Solo,” and “The Rescue”) have rattled with the heart-in-your-throat depth of using a rickety picket roller-coaster, Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Return to Space” renders Elon Musk’s mission to Mars with all of the rigor and pleasure of a two-hour infomercial for SpaceX. While I can’t converse to how this mission took place or what function it hoped to serve, “Return to Earth” so pungently reeks of sponsored content material that it doesn’t matter who really footed the invoice for it.

Which isn’t to recommend that Chin and Vasarhelyi wouldn’t be compelled to Musk on their very own accord, or to the astronauts who risked their lives as a way to lead SpaceX’s first crewed launch into orbit. The filmmakers’ earlier work has been galvanized by a high-intensity method to Herzogian characters — by a wealthy affinity for cave divers, free climbers, and anybody else who refuses to accept the straightforward comforts of terra firma — and a neurodivergent kajillionaire who goals of dying on Mars looks like such a pure topic for Chin and Vasarhelyi that Herzog, no stranger to the thought of disguising sponsored content as a extra natural type of documentary), might be kicking himself for not attending to Musk first. Or not.

Regardless, “Return to Space” doesn’t actually get to him both. On the opposite, this movie regards the richest man in historical past from such a take away that the space might solely be measured in lightyears. Chin and Vasarhelyi don’t minimize round the truth that Musk is mainly only a daring go well with with bottomless pockets (his abject uselessness within the SpaceX management room is possibly essentially the most humanizing factor about him), however their digital camera tends to fawn on him with the reverence of a fan contest winner, or the mortal awe of watching Prometheus steal hearth from the gods.

Not that a little bit awe isn’t referred to as for, right here. Much like Musk’s firm, “Return to Space” is animated by the concept we’ve to deliver the celebrities again right down to Earth earlier than we deliver individuals to the celebrities — that the approaching chance of area journey must be re-incepted into the collective unconscious earlier than NASA can rekindle the identical enthusiasm that fueled it to the Moon in 1969. Musk has all the time had a present for inflaming the world’s creativeness, and this documentary is an extension of that.

“Return to Space” strives to distill the magnitude of what SpaceX has achieved thus far and share the marvel of what it hopes to realize sooner or later, however the movie’s scattershot focus — in stark distinction to the breathless immediacy of “The Rescue” — and advertorial tone diminish the sheer thrill of watching the corporate land an orbital class rocket for the primary time. Despite taking pains to determine the hazards of launching into orbit (the Challenger and Columbia explosions are revisited in morbid element) and introducing us to the households of the 2 males who crewed the Dragon to the International Space Station and again in 2020, the film’s grand finale is constructed with all of the edge-of-your-seat pleasure of a press launch.

Chin and Vasarhelyi nonetheless discover methods to excel in such moments of life-or-death urgency, their cameras honing in on the unmistakably nervous faces of the SpaceX engineers at mission management in a method that reminds you simply how a lot is at stake with each launch. But their documentary flatlines every time it pauses to elucidate the top of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, or to place the CEO of Tesla because the hero who redeemed it by means of the ability of a historic public-private partnership (cue the parade of sycophantic speaking heads, all of whom are on Musk’s payroll).

And that’s precisely what “Return to Space” does for many of its operating time, as archival footage of NASA’s lowest moments is intercut with dotcom-era clips of Musk launching rockets at Burning Man (all of which is layered below newly recorded audio of Musk saying issues like “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you cannot stay in the cradle forever”). His all-or-nothing wager on the success of SpaceX is recounted with legendary admiration, whereas Neil Armstrong — briefly seen railing towards the public-private sponsorship at a congressional listening to — is dismissed as a dinosaur whose footprint on the previous didn’t present him with any particular authority on the long run.

Maybe it didn’t. Maybe Elon Musk, who as soon as thought it’d be humorous to promote flamethrowers over Twitter for $500, actually was the one particular person with the wealth and imaginative and prescient required to reinvigorate America’s area program and push humanity that a lot nearer to turning into a multi-planet species. Even (or particularly) at its most blandly propagandistic, “Return to Space” makes clear that somebody has to do the work; expertise doesn’t invent itself, and each paradigm-shifting eureka second requires an unfathomable diploma of perseverance as a way to develop into one thing extra.

But this aimless documentary — made all of the extra exasperating by the basic attraction of its subject material — doesn’t do sufficient of its personal work in return. It doesn’t query the price of Musk’s endeavors, it doesn’t replicate on the implications of his obsession (past some dry company discuss how SpaceX’s failures are instrumental to its success), and it doesn’t ask itself or anybody else if the richest individuals are essentially the best ones to guide us to a different world. Instead, it crescendos with somebody within the SpaceX management room utilizing the phrase “jabroni” at a vital second of the Dragon touchdown, as if reclaiming the cosmos for the widespread man. As if the remainder of the film contained any convincing proof that Elon Musk is racing to Mars for anybody however himself.

Grade: C-

“Return to Space” begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, April 8.

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David Ehrlich

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