Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Patrick Hao
During the early stages of the pandemic, there was a slew of private company space launches, starting first with SpaceX’s launching of two NASA astronauts (Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken). The launches came with both admiration and detractors. You would not know that at all with the Netflix documentary “Return to Space,” a movie that feels so much like it was produced by SpaceX’s in-house advertising team that it would not be surprising if it was playing on loop in the lobby of their offices.
The directing duo of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are interesting figures to direct a movie about SpaceX. With films like “Free Solo” and “The Rescue,” they are no strangers to documenting real-life stories about process-oriented people attempting something that does not seem humanly possible. They also are capable of being critical of their subjects while having much admiration. “Free Solo’s” treatment of Alex Hannold, the subject of that film, presents him as a singularly obsessed person, a personality type that should be reckoned with.
SpaceX, on the other hand, is not treated with any critical eye at all. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, is comfortably portrayed at a distance with a reverent tone. Even when the film delves into criticisms aimed at Elon’s unpredictability and behavior, the talking heads dismiss it as “Elon just being Elon.” It becomes especially noticeable that despite the open access the filmmakers had, they did not interview Musk himself. They certainly were in a lot of the same rooms as the billionaire.
The rest of the film cuts between the rise of SpaceX and the preparation for the May 2020 launch of Crew Dragon. This allows plenty of time for representatives of the company to distill SpaceX’s mission statement: “inspire space travel and make humans a multiplanetary species.” And it is admirable to see the work being done. Interviews with the astronauts, Hurley and Behnken, and chief engineer, Hans Koenigsmann, speak to the immense work it takes to prepare for the launch. But, this is a propagandist documentary, and less so than any of their other films, “Return to Space” is less process-oriented. Rather, the film celebrates the achievements above all else without any consideration of the implications.
A more fly-on-the-wall approach might have skirted any issue of looking like an advertisement. And space travel, above all else, is a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated. However, “Return to Space” is a cynical affair meant to aggrandize a company and its billionaire founder. Just look at the valorization of Musk as the overseer of modern space travel on the poster for the film. It will be one thing if this tension between advertisement and documentary exists in the film. Unfortunately, it’s pure corporate propaganda.
“Return to Space” Trailer