Four British astronomers in their 70s reunite for a 50th anniversary trek in this deceptive documentary. What begins as a nostalgic and impeccably polite road trip across America’s South West coalesces into something more profound: a meditation on life, the universe and everything.
There is banter about parochial concerns such as class and career, and on the other hand explanations of quasars and irregular blue galaxies. It’s a powerful juxtaposition.
Each professor has his turn in the starlight – theoretician Donald Lynden-Bell, instrument maker Roger Griffin, visionary Nick Woolf and Wallace L Sargent (Wal) the observer – as the film’s director Alison Rose slowly teases out their different characters.
Nick is fascinatingly scathing about manned space exploration. His friends keep fairly quiet when he says, “The whole thing with astronauts has been a huge mistake. What should have been learnt from the lunar landings is that you should not send people into space; you should send automatic equipment. And instead, the idiots kept sending humans up.”
But there are no arguments here, not even during a comedy interlude in which the great men of science have to deal with their car stalling in snow. Just the occasional good-natured ribbing about education and chips on shoulders.
Religion gets a look-in, too. Donald phrases his faith in such a way that surely no one could possibly take offence: “The idea that people should at least once in the week be taken out of themselves and made to think in a broader way, and away from their local lives, is actually rather important.
Optimism shines through their shared love of adventure, and through their words, especially on the subject of extraterrestrial life. As Nick says, “There are about ten billion planets in this galaxy that might have life develop on them. And there are about 100 billion galaxies spread through the universe.”
An elegiac film amid stunning scenery, Star Men makes it easy to appreciate the beauty of both our planet and its skies, while profiling four great scientific minds that are still active and enthusiastic. “Isn’t it amazing that we get paid to do this?” says Wal.
But you get the nagging feeling you’re being led somewhere… and it’s somewhere, temporarily, very sad…
Britain’s Star Men: Heroes of Astronomy is on Thursday 29th September at 9.00pm on BBC4