Film review: Star Men
Four of the world’s most influential astronomers reunite to celebrate 50 years of friendship on a road trip in the southwestern United States.
Revisiting the places that became important to them in their youth, both personally and professionally, the four friends embark on a journey that will see them ponder not just the meaning of life, but the significance of its end.
Roger Griffin, Donald Lynden-Bell, Nick Woolf and Wallace L. Sargent lived and worked during one of the most productive periods of astronomy the world has ever seen.
All British-born, the four friends graduated in the early ‘60s at a time when the UK could not practically facilitate the brilliant scientific minds it was producing.
Moving to California, home of the US space program, the young astronomers spent their formative years developing friendships that would last a life time, and scientific discoveries that would change the course of history.
Roger Griffin, Emeritus Professor of Observational Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, made groundbreaking work in spectroscopy, splitting the light from stars to enable astronomers to discover what stellar objects are made of.
Donald Lynden-Bell CBE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, produced the theory that the brightest objects in the Universe were discs of gas spinning around black holes, and also discovered the concept of the central galactic supermassive black hole.
Nick Woolf, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, worked on telescopes, pioneering methods that make telescopic images sharper by subtracting atmospheric interference.
Wallace L. Sargent FRS, Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astrophysics at Caltech, discovered observational proof of the Big Bang.
Alison Rose both directs and narrates the film, offering an outsider’s view into the lives of four extraordinary men looking back on their lives and pondering the purpose of existence.
The documentary manages to merge the scientific with the seemingly trivial, blending humour and profundity to take the viewer on a journey that not only explores the purpose of life, but also the importance of astronomy in allowing humanity to realise its place in the Universe.
Star Men functions also as an educational documentary, revealing the discoveries made by the four astronomers and explaining their wider significance.
The film takes us to George Ellery Hale’s Mount Wilson Observatory and the Palomar Observatory in California, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, on a hike to the famous ‘natural’ rainbow bridge in southern Utah, to the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Tucson, Arizona and the Keck Observatory at Caltech.
Rose has a knack for explaining advanced astronomical concepts in simple, understandable terms that enable the viewer to grasp the importance of the friends’ life-works and how they have changed humanity’s perception of itself.
Juxtaposing this is the film’s exploration of the triviality of existence; how death is not only inevitable, but a necessary trait that allows our species to develop, progress and, ultimately, survive.
Just as the four individual subjects of the film made discoveries for the benefit of the planet, Star Men leaves the viewer with the message that each of us, individual though we are, is part of a wider, expanding and ever-changing society that continually transforms in order to survive.
Rose has also managed to contextualise all this profundity within the everyday.
We see the team argue, debate, laugh, reminisce, struggle with car trouble, complain about the heat and, ultimately, appreciate the joy of existence.
As much as this is a film about life, it is also a documentary about astronomy and humanity’s commitment to study the stars.
Star Men celebrates the history of stargazing: the inventions and discoveries that have enabled us to learn so much about the Universe, but more importantly to understand how much more we have yet to discover.
Above all, it is a film about ambition and where it can lead us.
The essence of the documentary is perhaps summed up best by Rose’s own quotation of the American astronomer George Ellery Hale, who said “make no small plans”.
For more cosmic cinema, read our guide to the best space movies of all time.
Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Staff Writer.
Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Staff Writer. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.