The Search for Life in Space (2016)

A few years ago, I was blown away by Hidden Universe 3D (2013), the feature, which journeyed to the farthest reaches of the currently visible universe, still standing as one of the richest, most stirring and awe-inspiring IMAX documentaries I’ve ever seen (please seek it out whenever it shows next, you won’t regret it). The cherry on top was that it was produced in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia — a first for the giant screen format. When I heard that the same production team were back at it with another film, I just couldn’t wait.

In The Search for Life in Space, narrated with enthusiasm by English actor Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange (1971), we are taken on a voyage of investigation, philosophical musing and hard science as we reflect on one of the most ancient questions in the world’s history — ‘Is there other life in space?’ Largely inspired by the ground-breaking work of legendary space expert Carl Sagan, we follow leading Austrian scientist and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, Lisa Kaltenegger, as she illuminates the various ideas, research and technology that has formed the groundwork for seeking such answers.

‘Hey uh, you brought lights for when the sun goes down, right?’

The most startling thing about this inquiry is how much of our own Earth can inform us about other planets — there is a great deal of looking within in order to understand the great beyond. See, this central idea is what made Hidden Universe 3D so powerful — while we may look up and ponder the stars, there are quite a few foundational answers literally lying under our feet, answers that connect us to a much more unified galaxy.

In a section that is likely to fascinate and perhaps make claustrophobic types a bit uneasy, Kaltenegger ventures deep into tight underground passages formed by escaped lava that has since dried up — a place, she notes, is a side of Hawaii that is so new, it’s barely been seen by human eyes. Here, we come to understand how lava could create new lands elsewhere, on other planets, and how, in time, ecosystems could grow to adapt to it.

Of course, any cosmic IMAX documentary worth its salt has got to bring it big time when it comes to showcasing the vast beauty of space. Utilizing real ultra-high resolution images from deep space satellites — and sometimes augmenting these with state-of-the-art CGI — the scope of our solar system becomes mind-boggling when it’s apparent just how small we are next to other galaxies. The well-considered use of the full IMAX screen (in 3D, at that) really amplifies this effect, with a bona fide tour on the surface of Mars no doubt evoking memories of recent sci-fi hit The Martian (2015).

This shot of Jupiter (and one of its moons) really captures the best of both worlds.

Although director Stephen Amezdroz — who served as producer on Hidden Universe 3D — delivers firm pacing throughout, I couldn’t help but feel that he needed a little more running time to round off the expedition. While what’s presented here is grounded in real science, and viewers are bound to become more curious and excited about the potential of life in the stars, there may’ve been a missed opportunity to address some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding alien planets throughout history. Much of the focus is on the fundamental elements that could create and maintain life, but never do we get even a hypothesis on what kind of forms could develop.

Nonetheless, if you find yourself even casually pondering the stars and the world beyond our own, there is much within The Search for Life in Space to further fuel your inquisitive mind and enough eye-candy to justify venturing out to an IMAX theater. Just be wary — you may want to book in some time at the Planetarium straight after!

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The Search for Life in Space is currently playing at IMAX Melbourne, Australia