2019 | DIR: JURGEN HANSEN and PIERRE-EMMANUEL LE GOFF | STARRING: THOMAS PESQUET, PEGGY WHITSON, OLEG NOVITSKIY, GUILLAUME NERY | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Pesquet’s time on the ISS was captured in Hansen and Le Goff’s earlier documentary, Thomas Pesquet: Spatial Envoy (2017), a one-hour doco in which the astronaut recorded his day to day life about the ISS. This second, slightly longer feature documentary (but only by 12 minutes), is a kind of prequel to that first film, taking us back to the beginnings of Pesquet’s training for the ISS mission and purporting to reveal to us (as the title suggests) how he became an astronaut.
Thomas Pesquet is an ideal subject for the screen; he’s charming, funny and has movie-star good looks (two years after returning from the ISS he’d make a cameo appearance in Alice Winocour’s movie Proxima with Eve Green). His athleticism seems to know no bounds as we see his prowess in sports, scuba diving, judo and more. He even plays the saxophone (and promises to take it on board his flight in order to serenade us with some sax jazz during his long stay on the ISS). But, despite the star’s charisma, the film itself is patchy in the way it traces his progress through the rigorous training. For most of the time there’s quite a laissez faire feeling to the film as we meander from one stress test to another without a clear sense of how close or how far away from completion we are at any one point. Many of these tests that expose the astronauts to the intense forces of gravity or the disorienting effects of weightlessness are ones that we’ve seen countless times before and so the fascination of the environment itself is short-lived. The film comes alive for a bit when the three astronauts (Russian, America and French) are together, but even then we always seem to be following Pesquet at a distance; always on the outside looking in on the process, rather than gaining any real insight to the ambitions, the emotions and the experiences of Pesquet and his colleagues. The biggest problem with this plodding journey (and I feel bad saying this) is that nothing really goes wrong. Obviously, that’s good for the astronauts in training, but not so good for keeping an audience engaged in the story.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is that it takes us into two very different space training programmes; the American NASA programme, of course, but also the Russian programme. Each ‘specialises’ in a different aspect of the training but even here in the 21st century, some of the 20th century hangover of what those of a ‘certain age’ might recall as the ’USA/USSR space race’ of the Sixties seems not to have entirely vanished. But again, these moments of interest are short-lived and don’t feel (to me at least) part of a cohesive whole. For me, this was all a bit disappointing. I love a good space doco (and with last year’s celebration of fifty years since Apollo 11 we’ve had a few) but this didn’t take me anywhere I didn’t feel I’d been before and, for a space doco, that has to be the cardinal sin.
Part of the disappointment is that (mild spoiler alert) we never actually get to go into space with Pesquet. Despite the focus of the film being about him training for this important and significant 2016 mission, the film stops short of his actual departure, ending instead with him watching the 2015 launch of an earlier mission that took Andreas Mogensen (for whom Pesquet was back-up astronaut) to the ISS. Pesquet grins as the rocket takes his colleague into space, turns to the camera and tells us he’s looking forward to that being him in the not-too-distant future. I have to say, I was actually looking forward to that being him right now as the climax of the movie. Sadly, the film ends on this unrequited note, completing my disappointment in it by not completing Pesquet’s mission. (to be honest, my biggest disappointment is that we never get to see him play sax in space). Perhaps the filmmakers felt that they’d covered that part of the journey in their previous film although that would seem to be a bit arse- about. Maybe I’ll have to look it up to find out what Thomas Pesquet actually did when he became an astronaut.