Last Exit: Space engages in plenty of stimulating rhetoric, but its muddled tone and underwhelming visual aesthetic undermine much of its cinematic appeal.
Given the endless doom-scrolling of war, climate change, and general human-inflicted catastrophe, with each passing day the idea of starting from scratch feels less like a wild pipe dream and more like a necessity. But is such a thing possible on an interplanetary scale? In Last Exit: Space, director Rudolph Herzog interviews astronauts, scientists, and futurologists to shed light on humanity’s chances of discovering and colonizing Planet B. Many of his subjects treat intergalactic exploration as a twenty-first century version of Manifest Destiny, the logical next step in a long series of inherently human “migratory” impulses. For die-hard capitalists like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, space “exploration” is little more than thinly-veiled “exploitation”: a means of extracting resources and colonizing land to meet an ever-growing demand for material products that simply can’t be sustained on Earth.
While the allure of the final frontier has always beckoned, the recent spate of billionaire-made rocket launches has pushed commercial space travel one step closer to reality. But there’s a difference between one-off, bucket-list joyrides and the long-haul “generation ships” that would theoretically transport mankind to a planet thousands of years away. Not to mention the physiological considerations of extreme radiation exposure, the emotional toll of prolonged confinement, and the logistics of zero-gravity reproduction. Oh, and the likelihood of finding a suitable planet in the first place.
Herzog’s interview subjects touch on each of these issues in turn, with varying levels of credibility. It’s no surprise that astronaut Mike Foale is the most compelling of the group, given his unimpeachable record as someone who spent over a year in the International Space Station. Meanwhile, a “space sexologist” discusses the need for specialized equipment to prevent partners from floating away mid-coitus, having seemingly forgotten about more conventional methods like in-vitro fertilization (a successful IVF implantation using freeze-dried mice sperm occurred in 2017). Then there’s Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Dutch team of amateur astronauts who matter-of-factly discuss the need to condition themselves to zero gravity, while relying on a battered crash test dummy for their practice launches. Most heartbreaking is the story of Judith Lapierre, a female astronaut candidate who was confined with several men for a 110-day flight simulation exercise. After instances of sexual harassment by a male colleague, she ended up blacklisted from the field. No matter where we go, humans seemingly can’t escape their worst impulses.
Narrating the documentary is Rudolph’s father Werner, whose raspy German accent lends gravitas to the often-surreal narration. The film’s overall tone is hard to pinpoint; it lacks the warmth of something like a David Attenborough feature, despite the similar subject matter. At times, it’s hard to tell if Herzog is outright mocking the interviewees by including them in the documentary in the first place (for example, the bizarre interlude into Brazil’s alien-based Valley of Dawn religion). And for a documentary about something as majestic as outer space, the visuals are surprisingly underwhelming, relying on generic, recycled panoramas and talking head interview clips when the potential for more stirring graphics is literally out of this world.
In fact, it’s only in the film’s last minutes that its cinematography and narrative really come alive — and that’s because Herzog turns his attention to planet Earth. Amidst lush jungles, soaring waterfalls, and a moving ceremony led by indigenous Hawaiians before their cherished volcano, we see our home planet for what it is: a life-sustaining “paradise” that needs to be protected and nurtured, not exploited and abandoned. And on the flip side, those other, yet-to-be-identified planets also need protection — from us. Considering what we’ve done to Planet A, it seems we might be better off never finding Planet B after all.
You can stream Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space on Discovery+ beginning on March 10.