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'The Hunt For Planet B' Gets An 'A' From Our Film Critic

Astronomers at the Lick Observatory in a scene from The Hunt for Planet B, directed by Nathaniel Kahn.
Courtesy Crazy Boat Picture
Astronomers at the Lick Observatory in a scene from The Hunt for Planet B, directed by Nathaniel Kahn.

The Hunt for Planet B is having its world premiere in the ongoing, and online, South by Southwest Festival. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, the film will make your jaw drop.

The Hunt for Planet B shows the work being done on the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in October. The project has been going for decades, and the very idea of the telescope and the engineering needed to pull off this mammoth and expensive task, boggle the mind of a poor film critic.

One aim for the Webb is to observe the earliest light yet seen in the universe, to help scientists learn far more about the origins of existence than they do now. The Webb has a hundred times the power of the Hubble Telescope, which orbits Earth at an altitude of 340 miles. The Webb will be placed about a million miles from Earth with a large gold-over-beryllium mirror and a very large sunscreen to protect the telescope from heat. It takes a lot of people to do this work, as well as the space agencies of the US, Canada and the European Union.

As the project developed, though, teams of scientists working on the Webb telescope, led by women, added to the mission goals the search for life on other planets outside our solar system.

The movie is subtle about it, but women are fully part of the scientific armada working on the Webb telescope, and that’s a great step. Women lead meetings; women take the filmmakers up to a lonely observatory in northern California; women are prime figures talking about the project for the movie. Men too, but to see a full contingent of women is a welcome sight, and the insights of women in particular helped shape the mission. Women scientists figured out an ingenious way to sight planets by how they slightly dim the visible light of a sun when they cross in front of it.

What’s also surprising is that director Nathaniel Kahn makes the building of a telescope a tense drama. The scientists show so much excitement and the stakes are so high, that watching the film you feel the suspense. In tests, will the panels of the mirror fit properly? Will the sunscreen deploy? A million miles away, there’s no fixing things, so the Webb has one chance to work.

It’s fascinating to see how scientists think. They’re human beings with wishes, desires, fears and humor. They hang out at lakes; they have dinner in restaurants with their moms. But when they’re being scientists, their focus is stunning. James Arenberg, one of the lead engineers, worries that his imagination will fail him, that he won’t be able to foresee unimagined future problems that could destroy the mission. Another scientist worries that if someone crucial like Arenberg had an accident, irreplaceable knowledge about Webb would be lost — that’s when the film cuts to a scientist working on her race car. The mind boggles trying to take in this wondrous symphony of science and humanity.

As a note, the end credits of the film list support from the Northrup Grumman Foundation. While the Northrop Grumman Corporation is doing major work on the Webb telescope, the foundation is entirely separate and filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn says that neither the company nor the foundation have had any say in the making of The Hunt for Planet B.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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