Paul Devlin has been involved with two of the better documentaries of the ‘00s: Power Trip, a film he directed, about the politics of making money off electricity in a post-communist Georgia; and Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme, a film he produced and edited, about the importance of improvisation in hip-hop. Devlin’s documentary BLAST! has a more personal origin, though the director doesn’t really delve into it. BLAST! follows Devlin’s brother Mark, an astrophysicist working on launching a Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope, designed to peer back in time and map the history of the stars. Mark Devlin’s team includes foul-mouthed grad students, NASA advisors, and a devout Christian colleague who hopes to use any data they gather to better understand God. A failed launch in Sweden leads to a last-ditch effort in Antarctica, where the team waits for good weather and sweats every setback, while their families wait impatiently back home.
Devlin has fodder here for about a half-dozen documentaries: one about his relationship with his brother and his father (both scientists), one about the intersection of science and faith, one about the intersection of academic theory and hard physical labor, one about life in the remote outposts where complicated research gets done, and so on. But as befits a documentarian who’s worked on projects about energy-suppliers and rappers, Devlin has a hard time focusing. BLAST! could use a little of the personality of an Ice Road Truckers, or the showmanship of a Mythbusters, or the philosophical inquiry of a Werner Herzog film.
That said, Devlin comes away from his globe-hopping scientific adventure with a lot of terrific footage of giant balloons rising from barren landscapes, and stressed-out theoreticians nervously watching their fragile, expensive equipment scrape across ice floes. BLAST! takes pit stops in New Zealand (where American expeditions to Antarctica get outfitted) and the cabin where Ernest Shackleton’s team made camp in 1909. There’s a matter-of-factness to BLAST! that overcomes the documentary’s lack of one strong thread. And it helps that Devlin’s brother and his colleagues are so likable, as they endure another endless sunlit Antarctic day and laugh about how “step by tedious step we stumble away from abject failure.”