Published Apr 30, 2010During the height of the Soviet era, when Sputnik made the Empire's space program a bona fide threat to that of the United States, rockets were launched into space on a nearly weekly basis. Thirty years later, in the early stretches of Christian Friel's Space Tourists, the space program's once-thriving headquarters in Kazakhstan couldn't be more desolate.
Friel's images of the program's decaying buildings surrounded by vast emptiness, shown one after another in exquisitely framed compositions like a coffee table art book, are certainly bleak. Even bleaker is a short scene in a Russian space museum. Sterile, gloomy, with Soviet marching songs playing in pitiful Muzak form, it has all the vigour and glory of a zombie.
"Can you put a price on a dream?," asks Anouseh Ansari, an Iranian-American businesswoman who, through Russia's moribund space program, becomes the first female tourist to travel to space (at the cost of a cool 20 million). This statement, plus Friel's dreary landscapes, implies that the collapse of Russia's space program with the demise of the Soviet Empire also meant the death of a dream that outer space might one day be attainable. Ansari hopes for a day when the public at large will be able to experience space travel, and whether or not this strikes you as a worthwhile goal, you sure can't fault her for thinking big.
In its first hour, Space Tourists is hauntingly beautiful; its meditative pacing forces the audience to contemplate images we might normally take for granted (such as astronauts assembled in their suits posing for pictures), and the film generates a sense of awe at the very notion of space travel. The scenes onboard the International Space Station (filmed by Ansari during weightlessness) are particularly striking.
Space Tourists deftly walks the tightrope of generating mood while eschewing a conventional narrative, until its storyline becomes shapeless and dull in the last third when Ansari, back on Earth, develops ways to make space travel more accessible for civilians, along with redundant scenes of another space tourist (Charles Simonegi, chief architect of Microsoft Word) preparing for his orbital holiday. (Christian Friel)