Between Free Solo and The Rescue, directors Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have become synonymous with heart-pounding documentaries that show the resilience and perseverance of the human spirit. As such, it seems only natural for the directing duo to set their sights on the stars for their latest feature. Yet while Return to Space is an uplifting testament of persistency, it lacks the thrilling cinematic style that one comes to expect from a Chin & Vasarhelyi documentary.
Thanks to never before seen footage from NASA & SpaceX of the mission, Return to Space provides audiences with an all access look into SpaceX’s first manned launch of Dragon (their reusable rocket) in May of 2020. Specifically, the footage captured by SpaceX of Dragon traveling through space is breathtaking and reminds us of just how small our lives are in comparison to the known universe.
However, the treasure trove of archival footage provided by NASA and SpaceX means that Chin and Vasarhelyi have little opportunity to inject their adventurous cinematic panache into the feature. Instead, in depth interviews with key members of SpaceX, including founder Elon Musk and the astronauts on the manned mission (Doug Hurley & Bob Behnken), give background to the arduous journey to privatize space travel, from the birth of SpaceX in the early 2000s into the contemporary space age juggernaut it is today. The interviews themselves are enlightening but are presented like any other typical talking-head documentary. Rather than letting the archival footage speak for itself like in Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, the plethora of interview segments inundates audiences with information and actually takes away from the spectacle of the launch.
Additionally, Return to Space sidesteps many of the controversies surrounding Elon Musk and SpaceX’s environmental concerns to instead project an sense of American exceptionalism and ingenuity. While this message of perseverance can be uplifting, it feels partially contrived given that the audience is only presented with one side of the story.
As such, Return to Space is largely a sanitized and stale presentation of one of the most significant events in space travel history. Even though Dragon boldly went where no corporation had gone before, Chin & Vasarhelyi’s latest is mostly par for the course in the world of documentary filmmaking.
The Silver Lining
The animated sequences utilized to model complex space travel procedures are very well executed. The minimalistic style makes these difficult procedures easy to comprehend and are used sparingly enough that you never get tired of their inclusion.
Return to Space releases on Netflix on April 7th.