SXSW Film Review: The Hunt for Planet B

We’re gonna need a bigger telescope ...

SXSW space documentary The Hunt for Planet B

“In our own Milky Way Galaxy there are a hundred billion stars, and we now believe in our universe there are more than a hundred billion galaxies. So if you just do the math, the chance that there’s a planet like earth out there, with life on it, is very high.”

That’s Astrophysicist Sara Seager attempting to explain to a patently clueless Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in December of 2013, as shown in SXSW 2021 documentary The Hunt for Planet B.

Tasked with overseeing NASA and, more importantly, controlling the funds allotted to the Agency for everything from R&D to keeping an eye out for wayward space objects that could make Michael Bay’s Armageddon look like a, well, a movie, the Committee veers towards the skeptical. Seager is unflappable, though. Her mission? Secure funding for the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, the next step in mankind’s ongoing search for earth-like exoplanets orbiting innumerable distant suns. On hundred times more powerful than the Hubble, the James Webb is so large that it will have to be sent into space in pieces, with the final assembly of its gargantuan, gold-plated solar sail handled remotely.

Director Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary ranges far afield from just the challenges of building the James Webb under constant threat of budgetary cuts. Seager and a host of other astrophysicists whose names will probably be carved in granite some day—mostly women, notably— offer the layperson audience a crash course in the history of our increasingly powerful cosmic spyglasses, the probabilities of life or past life on other, yet to be discovered exoplanets, and other 4am ponderables.

Kahn brings things down to earth just in time for audiences to reconnect with what is the most important question of all: Why? Aren’t things bad enough here on earth that our finite resources would be better spent on terra firma? Jill Tarter, the former head of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), ushers in the theory that because of human aggression we may well do ourselves in before any sort of first contact is made.

Contemporary issues such as climate change, Colony Collapse Disorder among bees and pollinating insects, and the myriad ways humans work tirelessly against their best interests serve to underscore the need for just such extraterrestrial exploration. Carl Sagan, seen in a clip from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, puts it best: “We are at a very dangerous moment in human history…we are not certain that we will survive this period of technological adolescence. But, were we to receive a message from somewhere else, it would show that it is possible to survive this kind of period.” Why? Because: Hope.

The Hunt For Planet B

World Premiere

Documentary Spotlight

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