A Beautiful Planet (2016)

Experience Earth like never before.

In this documentary made in co-operation between IMAX and NASA — with narration from American actress Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) — we explore Earth from the International Space Station. With a mix of visuals captured from the outside of the station, CG and footage shot by the on-board astronauts, we are given an exploration of the planet’s evolving landscape and the impact of mankind upon it.

An air of familiarity flows over the structure of A Beautiful Planet. Have you seen any other IMAX-NASA films? If the answer is ‘no,’ or ‘not for a while,’ then you’re likely to get the most out of the journey. If the answer is ‘yes,’ and especially recently, you may find the doco a bit too familiar.

Director Toni Myers is no stranger to the giant screen format, having helmed five documentaries centered on space, the most recent being NASA co-productions Space Station 3D (2002) and Hubble 3D (2010), the latter being especially exciting as it surveys the outer rims of the Nebula. The trouble is Myers seems to have gotten a tad too comfortable with her structure to change it up or even alter it.

Satellite photos - the Earth's selfie!
Satellite photos – the Earth’s selfie!

Over the 45-minute run-time, across the NASA endorsed pictures, it goes a little something like this — introduce space, then the astronauts heading up there, have a little no-gravity party with the folks on board, take a look outside and see Earth, some quirky astronaut behavior, more observation of the planet, a tense mission, celebration, a mind-blowing insight, astronaut’s final thoughts, landing, concluding words from space, end credits.

While there’s nothing seemingly wrong with a formula like this, it does feel as though it gets in the way of the main scientific narrative and it does become repetitive if already accustomed to other similarly-themes docos. I can only deduce that the reason as to why half these films are caught up with the astronauts is because part of NASA’s investment is in stirring interest and rallying up recruitment, and let’s face it, the beauty of seeing the big black beyond on that huge IMAX screen is what is likely to inspire us the most.

As I touched on in relation to the structure, there’s an astonishing observation at the heart of the documentary and it comes as we monitor Earth at night. While taking in the amazing sight of the light emitted from buzzing cities, a few things become clear — the dense population of human life, the subsequent pollution, the similarities between nations and the insignificance of a single life when observed within the scope of the ‘larger picture.’ Therefore, the main point that A Beautiful Planet seeks to get across is a sense of shared responsibility from all people for our time on Earth.

All of the Lights
All of the Lights

Jennifer Lawrence’s narration works well enough, but some of the biggest insights are the interspersed thoughts from the spacemen themselves — these are people who have lived and breathed outer world exploration with unadulterated passion and have much to share.

And for the record, not that you have a choice, but the 3D is largely wasteful and unnecessary; the presentation would’ve been even better on a flat 2D canvas taking up your entire perception without the feeling of ‘looking through’ what feels like observation glasses.

In summary, I do believe A Beautiful Planet is otherwise competently made and worth watching on a gigantic screen — viewers will feel as though they’re seeing another side of Earth, one we rarely comprehend and few of us will ever experience. While it doesn’t quite inspire and stir like the outstanding Australian IMAX documentary Hidden Universe 3D (a must in the large screen format) and could’ve used less astronaut time and more space vistas, there’s still plenty within the feature that makes it worth the trip.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

A Beautiful Planet is currently playing at IMAX Melbourne, Australia