Nathathiel Kahn isn’t afraid to show himself asking the wrong questions in “The Hunt for Planet B,” charting the development of the James Webb Telescope, an ongoing NASA project designed to explore the possibility of other habitable planets in our universe, honing in on a series of recently uncovered exoplanets known as Trappist-1. Like many outside of the scientific community, the director is prone to asking those involved whether they really believe there’s life beyond earth or if it’s really worth spending the money to conduct exploratory missions when those resources might be better spent elsewhere, but instead of the politicians he shows throughout his follow-up to “The Price of Everything” making the same queries of those involved in the project at congressional hearings as cost overruns and schedule delays occur, there isn’t some sense of superiority behind it, usually expressed with a chuckle or a sarcastic aside as if they’re looking into black holes.
“We’re not doing religion here, we’re doing science,” says Jill Tarter, the SETI Institute astronomer who inspired Jodie Foster’s character in “Contact,” quickly shutting Kahn down when asked about what she believes and rather than look foolish, Kahn appears anything but when constructing an engaging and inspirational film where even if the results of the mission doesn’t put a new planet within human grasp, “The Hunt for Planet B” puts the idea of it within the reach of any viewer. Like his previous film “The Price of Everything” in which the frenzy of dollars being thrown around inside the rarefied air of the high-end art world was energetically portrayed with no shot lasting more than a few seconds, Kahn feverishly globetrots once more to capture the anticipatory excitement of making a discovery beyond our current comprehension of the universe, visiting Italy where Galileo once was persecuted for daring to suggest Jupiter had many moons and Concorde, Massachusetts where Charles Darrow, an amateur astronomer is setting his sights on the stars just to take in its wonder.
However, the film is built around the physical construction of the James Webb Telescope, which like anything sent into space for the purposes of exploration is guesswork at best, though as demonstrated in the film, math can all but guarantee that this magnificent technology can sense a bumblebee from as far away from where you are now to the moon. The considerations of every variable that the scientists can think of being incorporated into the telescope would be fascinating enough, but Kahn has a rare gift for connecting professional drive to personal stories to make things extra compelling, latching onto astrophysicist Sara Seager’s desire to do something meaningful by discovering new life in the wake of a devastating personal tragedy or Northrup Grumman system engineer Amy Lo’s work at raceways tinkering with the mechanics of cars when her contributions to putting together the telescope are largely theoretical.
The director’s wry sense of humor opens up “The Hunt for Planet B” to be approachable, but the inclusion of small moments from Lo being stuck in traffic as she’s involved in seeking out a world potentially more habitable to Seager admitting how she’ll zone out to ‘80s music and drift away make their much larger ambitions come into focus and when so many seem eager to tag them as radical, it presents them as the most down to earth of anyone. Following the words of Neil Armstrong when he first landed on the moon, “The Hunt for Planet B” creates the small steps of understanding it takes to make a giant leap for mankind.
“The Hunt for Planet B” will screen at SXSW through March 20th.