Directed By: Jesse Hibbs
Starring: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake
Tag line: "IMAX Film Projects the Big Picture of our Vast Universe as Never Seen Before"
Trivia: Was nominated for Best Documentary, Short Subjects at the 1997 Academy Awards
Of all the IMAX documentaries I’ve watched thus far, Cosmic Voyage is hands-down my favorite. Written and directed by Bayley Silleck, the movie takes us on a journey from the outer reaches of the galaxy to the innermost workings of a single cell, all related in a way that’s guaranteed to keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman (while that phrase has, by now, become something of a cliché, this 1996 movie marks one of the actor’s earlier efforts behind the mic), Cosmic Voyage uses two historic events: Galileo’s invention of the first telescope in 1609 and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s 17th-century improvement of the microscope, as starting points, building upon each one to convey the beauty and mystery of the galaxy, and the marvels found at the center of an atom. With stops in Venice, the Netherlands, and the Fermilab Particle Accelerator in Illinois, the film next delves into the Big Bang Theory, during which we learn how life on earth began, while also contemplating the possibility of its existence elsewhere in the universe.
These topics alone would be enough to make Cosmic Voyage a fascinating documentary, but it’s the movie's unique approach to the material that really grabs your attention. For example, the film’s journey to the farthest reaches of space begins in St. Mark’s Square in Venice (the city where Galileo perfected the telescope), using a meter-wide acrobat’s ring as a reference point. From there, the camera glides outward, momentarily pausing each time the distance increases by the power of 10. At 10 meters out, we can see all of St. Mark’s Square; at 100 meters, the city of Venice, and so on. You’ll be amazed at how quickly things move (a mere 13 “steps” from the ring, i.e. a meter to the 13th power of 10, puts our entire solar system into view). Using this simple method, Cosmic Voyage reveals the vast wonders of the universe, utilizing state-of-the-art CGI to bring it all to life.
Then, its time to travel inward, at which point the action shifts to Delft, a village in the Netherlands (and van Leeuwenhoek’s home town), where we focus on a single raindrop teeming with bacteria. Once again using a meter to the power of 10 as a reference, Cosmic Voyage makes its way downward to the subatomic level, zooming in on a strand of DNA until it hits the smallest possible variable: the quark. As researchers peered deeper and deeper into this microscopic world, they formed a theory about what caused the Big Bang, which many believe was the event that spawned the entire known universe. In what might be its most intriguing segment, the movie recreates the Big Bang, complete with a brief history of the earth (in its infancy, the planet was a molten rock, pelted on a regular basis by giant meteors), including how life formed in its primordial pool.
What makes these expeditions even more exciting is director Silleck’s keen eye for visuals, which he uses to enhance the overall experience while, at the same time, challenging our perception of the world around us, In its opening moments, the film features a birds-eye view of a plane flying through the clouds, but when that plane lands, instead of an actual airport, Silleck cuts to a well-detailed miniature, an optical illusion that, at first, throws us for a loop. “Things around us aren’t always as they seem”, says Freeman, who eventually asks “”What is truly large, and truly small?” In less than an hour, Cosmic Voyage answers that question as completely as it possibly can, and in a way that you’ve likely never seen before.