I probably spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the universe. It has always confused me when people choose to marvel at some invented celestial dictator—or mythical “Creator”—when we have the truly awe-inspiring reality of the universe in plain sight. One could spend several lifetimes contemplating the complexity, intricacy, and infinity of our universe and still be left in awe. (Or so I anticipate.) That said, I was excited to watch the Emmy-award winning documentary Journey of the Universe, recently released on DVD.
In the decades since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, undoubtedly the standard bearer for documentaries concerning our universe, science has come a long way. Though Cosmos has, overall, aged remarkably well since it premiered in 1980, some of its facts and perspectives have not, in light of recent discoveries by scientists, physicists, and astronomers. I anticipated that Journey of the Universe might answer some of the questions posed by Carl Sagan 30 years earlier concerning the origins of our existence, the origins of the universe, and our ultimate fate.
Journey of the Universe is no Cosmos, nor should one expect it to be: while Cosmos clocks in at 13 hours, Journey of the Universe skips by in a mere 57 minutes. It’s undoubtedly easier to create and sustain a viewing environment conducive to rumination on the vastness of space when you have 13 hours of airtime; it’s a tall order to accomplish the same in under an hour.
Although Journey of the Universe makes an admirable attempt at piquing the average viewer’s interest in the story of the universe, its disorganization and unrealistic ambition hinders its viewing power. Journey of the Universe may be a decent primer on the state of scientific knowledge about the universe for the uninitiated, but it lacks energy, wonder, and most notably, structure. The film views like a hectic collection of anecdotes and facts that, while no doubt interesting, do little to advance a coherent narrative concerning the history of space, time, and our relation to it. Journey of the Universe will prove to be, I expect, a very good starting point for elementary school children in the early process of exploring the cosmos, but it offers older audiences little in terms of new discoveries and compelling perspectives.
Thankfully, the team behind Journey of the Universe has released a redemptive ten hour lecture series to accompany the film. Journey of the Universe: Conversations brings together scholars from the fields of physics, science, geology, philosophy, and religious studies to discuss a wide range of themes pertaining to the emergence of the universe, earth, life, our species, and our survival in a multi-part lecture series. Hosted by Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor of religious studies at Yale, Journey of the Universe: Conversations is more likely to appeal to Cosmos aficionados and Sagan devotees, and it mostly succeeds in providing an overview of the state of our knowledge of the universe in the early 21st century. Journey of the Universe: Conversations seems destined for posterity, while Journey of the Universe does not.
Part of what makes Journey of the Universe disappointing is the urgent requirement of our species to better realize our interconnectedness with all things, and truly comprehend our being the universe, rather than simply visitors as so many religious doctrines preach. Journey of the Universe briefly mentions global warming, and our species’ relentless consumption and waste of natural resources to the detriment of all others. However, the documentary fails to emphasize the point that so much of the damage we humans do to our tiny corner of the universe comes as a result of backward thinking about our relationship to the planet, and the universe more broadly.
We are in desperate need of compelling educational programming that can present the latest scientific perspectives and resources for the survival of our species to a general audience. It seems this might only be accomplished with the flair and warmth that made Carl Sagan’s Cosmos such a landmark event over three decades ago.
Thankfully, promise looms in the not-too-distant future: Carl Sagan’s spiritual and scientific heir, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is currently working on a sequel to Cosmos, due to be released some time next year. Hopefully, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey will succeed where Journey of the Universe did not.