Review: Oscar-Winning Free Solo Filmmakers Rocket from Mountains to the Stars in Return to Space

Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are best known for profiling death-defying feats of bravery/foolishness at various spots around the Earth in films like Free Solo, The Rescue and Meru. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the next mountain the directing team set out to conquer isn’t on Earth at all. As the title might suggest, the documentary Return to Space tracks the rise of the NASA-adjacent aerospace manufacturer SpaceX (which is literally short for Space Exploration), a provider of space transportation services, and the company’s quest resurrect America’s space travel program that hadn’t launched a crew from U.S. soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. As most know, the company is owned by Tesla-founder Elon Musk, so this is also about his ambitions to be a part of the continuing story of space travel and the eventual plan to send astronauts to other planets, perhaps in the hope of forming colonies.

Lest you think this is a film about Musk, it is not. The film is about the hundreds of people responsible for the building, testing and launching of the first manned mission to the International Space Station from America, with particular attention paid to NASA veterans Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley and their families as the countdown to their launch grows nearer. As they do with all of their movies, the filmmakers are experts in combining both great technological detail and moving humanity in their storytelling, with the resulting work capturing the drama and thrills of the entire mission, from a delayed (due to weather) first launch to the harrowing return.

As great and down to Earth as most participants in the program can be, Musk and a few of his cronies take up a bit too much real estate at times, culminating in a mission control sequence to close out the film that seems to have them in the room just to make sure we know they were a part of it. That’s not the fault of the filmmakers, who do a tremendous job capturing the scene as much as the specifics of the mission. Their access seems unlimited, and they are able to not only track the two decades’ worth of events that led to the launch, but also find ways to incorporate the childhood hopes and dreams of many of the engineers and astronauts who made it happen.

Honestly, this might be the most human Musk himself has ever been portrayed in anything I’ve seen him in, and Vasarhelyi and Chin make it clear that SpaceX is more than just a rich guy shooting rockets into space for his own self-glorification. There are a great number of very smart and talented people working hard to accomplish something in which they see real value, and they all do a fairly worthy job of convincing us this project is important. Return to Space also looks great and is brutally honest about failures and setbacks when it needs to be. We’ve seen a great number of docs in the last few years about the history of NASA’s space program, so it’s a welcome shift to get a peak into the future of interstellar travel.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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