Less a documentary than an invitation to play, Van Neistat’s A Space Program runs viewers through the beauty of a homespun, handmade science-fiction theater piece/gallery event that in dream-along ambition one-ups Méliès: This time, we’re going to Mars and back.
In 2012, the artist Tom Sachs staged and designed a playdate of a The Right Stuff–flavored performance/installation piece at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. The idea: to track a Martian voyage from inception to first steps on the red planet and find an answer to the question of whether or not there’s life out there. The show was rococo bricolage, with Sachs and crew building space suits, capsules, mission-control consoles and even a Martian rover buggy from plywood, steel, Tyvek, and found objects: Dig that boombox with the foldout solar panels!
The result is something like the best science-fair project ever, an inviting performance piece that tasks viewers with the pleasurable, imaginative engagement that more seamless special effects deny. As a model rocket blasts into space, we see some slack let loose on a rope from which a globe is hanging. Cut to a camera above that globe and, look, the Earth is receding below us.
Such ingenuity rules the performance and the film, in which men and women who worked on the project get to explain, with amusing NASA-level seriousness, which materials they’ve used and why. They honor the rigors of space travel — and the ingenuity of these inventors — in sequences in which the astronauts use the toilet (they’ve rigged up both the fate of human waste and, hilariously, the waste itself) or send soil samples back to Earth via fishing line and a crowd-pleasing toy. Nobody once breaks character: These are all scientists, they insist, seeking out an answer to the greatest question humanity has ever faced.
That conviction gives the narrative power: It’s legitimately tense when the astronauts attempt to land on Mars by playing an Atari 2600. Next time a critic complains that some new movie looks like someone is playing a video game, remember this: That can be thrilling.
A Space Program
Directed by Van Neistat
Opens March 18, Metrograph