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BLAST balloon inflated and prepared to launch in the film BLAST! (Photo: Mark Halpern)

BLAST!
Directed by
Paul Devlin
Produced by
Devlin & Claire Missanelli
Released by Devlin Productions
USA/UK/Canada/Sweden/Finland/France. 74 min. Not Rated  
 

Science-based films tend to run the risk of appealing only to nerds. But as the new Star Trek demonstrated, throw in some relatable themes and engaging characters, and even the fickle mainstream crowds will cheer (and buy tickets). BLAST! may go where no science documentary has gone beforeómainstream appeal, because watching those who let nothing stand in the way of achieving their singular mission (even if we donít quite understand it) is still compelling drama.

In this case, the mission is to get BLAST (Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope) to shoot up into the stratosphere tethered to a NASA high-altitude balloon so that it can look back in time and visualize some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. If successful, the solar-powered telescope will capture never-before seen data on these ancient galaxies for the world to see, but only if our brave scientists can retrieve the precious hard drives after BLAST crashes back to Earth.

That sounds easy enough, right? The group of scientists is led by Mark Devlin, the Phil Jackson-esque, Zen-like astrophysicist who engineered BLAST, and Barth Netterfield, a University of Toronto scientist with the infectious nerdy energy of Bill Gates. Both are eminently watchable and provide a complimentary personality counterpoint to each other.

The obstacles they face are abundant, from bad weather to misaligned mirrors to a glove getting stuck in the launch balloon. All of this leads the BLAST team from Arctic Sweden to Inuit Canada to the desolate ice of Antarctica in numerous attempts to get it right. The visuals are stunning, especially the Antarctic segment. But more stunning than the landscape is the landscape of these scientistsí minds. As the narrative develops, you realize these guys fashion themselves as intergalactic Magellans, seeking to be the first to discover and record data about the origins of the universe. The specifics may not make much sense to the casual viewer. And as the setbacks mount, you may wonder if the cost, years of work, and millions of dollars is really worth it.

But these scientists believe in the mission with unnerving conviction, and thatís what makes BLAST! a gem to watch. As one final setback in Antarctica threatens the outcome of the entire mission, you see these scientists really sweat, as they have risked a great deal personally and professionally on this mission. The film reveals that not all scientists are risk averse lab rats, and some are just like anyone who takes tremendous risks chasing a dream. Even if you donít completely buy or understand their intention, youíll want to know whether they achieve scientific glory, or crash and burn with their telescope. Devanshu Patel
June 12, 2009

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