(Canada/USA/UK, 88 min.)
Written and directed by Alison Rose
The average lifespan of a star ranges from approximately 10 billion to 100 trillion years depending on its size. The average lifespan of a person is approximately 71 years depending on factors such as gender and geography. Since people have infinitely shorter lives than celestial beings do, it’s up to each member of the human race to make those 71-odd years count.
Star Men, the latest documentary from Canadian filmmaker Alison Rose (Love at the Twilight Motel), features a quartet of men whose ages exceed a human’s average lifespan. The film introduces audiences to stargazers Roger, Donald, Nick, and Wal, four lifelong friends and colleagues whose work collectively advanced the field of astronomy. These pals have experiences as large and powerful as the sun and ambitions as limitless as the expansive universe, but as Star Men follows them on a reunion, it captures their realisation that humans and stars do not have the same longevity. The film subtly evokes one’s own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe.
Rose joins the quartet on their reunion, where they revisit the locale of a major hike the friends undertook in the Grand Canyon. Along the way, the filmmaker and the astronomers make pit stops at their old observatories and discuss their studies. The passion for science and the ongoing quest for knowledge ring clear in the stories of these men, as Rose invites each participant to speak individually in interviews, while point-of-view footage captures the group as a whole. All four scientists share diverse narratives of humble beginnings and explain with childlike enthusiasm the drive to test the limits of the universe through telescopes and mathematics. These characters might be old, but they’re young at heart—at least when the film begins—as they want to reclaim the energy of their glory days. Their attempt to re-enact a dangerous trek that allowed them to see the stars from the crisp and clear vantage points of rocky Arizona differs on the new trip.
The four Brits quickly realize that the Grand Canyon is no country for old men, as health ailments, wobbly legs, and faulty memories make the hike much harder than it was in their youth. Only two of the four astronomers actually make it to the end of the journey but Rose assumes a prominent role within the frame as the story progresses and the men recognise that their starlight is fading. The filmmaker becomes more active as one of the subjects, Roger, acts increasingly prickly as he forges ahead on the walk and struggles to accept that his body is not as youthful as his spirit. Rose mediates the situation well and lets Roger come to his own realisation on the rocky path. Star Men uses the expansive scenery of the Arizona landscape, which DP Daniel Grant conveys with striking awe, to show the extraordinarily large world that these men want to conquer.
At once an intimate portrait of friendship and an engaging discussion of the unknowable elements of the universe, Star Men engages viewers with the philosophical questions that astronomy inspires. As the friends explain their success at tackling science to chart the universe, Rose invites them to extend their research to the larger “what if” questions posed by their research. The answers show an appreciable range, as one astronomer denies the existence of a god, while another takes a far more metaphysical approach and deconstructs the origins of the universe with a chicken/egg approach that ponders how One might have even created it. Similarly, one of the friends suggests that intelligent life undoubtedly exists outside Earth, but communicating with such beings is a question for scientists of another generation.
The film is at its most profound when the hikers stop to admire the sky and comment on how beautiful it looks against the backdrop of the uncorrupted landscape. At the same time, the magnitude of the Grand Canyon makes the stargazers seem small and humble in the grand scale of the universe. No person can traverse the endlessness of the cosmos however youthful one’s hunger to explore may be. However, one may inspire future stargazers, which Star Men inevitably should with its down to earth portrait of these four friends.
Star Men screens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema beginning Feb. 12.
Director Alison Rose and subject Donald Lynden-Bell will participate in Q&As at all screenings.