It’s difficult to think of someone with a more bizarre public persona than billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. You know, the guy who claimed that we are almost definitely living in a videogame and smoked a blunt in the same Joe Rogan interview, tweeted that he used to be an alien, and named his and pop star Grimes’ baby X Æ A-Xii—and those aren’t even among the top five weirdest things he’s ever done.
Incidentally, Musk is also largely responsible for the commercialization of modern space travel. In Return to Space, Academy Award-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin outline the creation of the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002 with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars. In the past two decades, SpaceX has lowered the cost of space travel drastically by designing reusable spacecrafts, and has become an integral supplier for NASA because of this. In short, whatever you think of Musk and his wacky antics, without SpaceX, we wouldn’t have our current solution to the vast expenses of space travel, and would be indefinitely earthbound.
But from Return to Space’s perspective, this is one of those cases where you should not separate the artist from the art. Indeed, Musk’s persona is a large part of SpaceX and its overwhelming success. Musk is one of those chronically online, in-your-face-celebrity types who fits in perfectly to the so-called internet era. While spearheading SpaceX in its embryonic stage, Musk knew that space travel was a popularity contest, a contest that he eventually won over fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss who strove to commercialize space travel with his company Blue Origin and lost a $2.9 billion lunar-landing contract to SpaceX. That’s just the cost of business these days, and Musk is exceptionally good at playing the game.
This kind of business model might seem like a relatively modern phenomenon, but the filmmakers do a great job at outlining the fact that charisma, excitement, and adoration has always been at the forefront of space travel. Embedded in Return to Space is footage from NASA and SpaceX that plays out less like a documentary and more like narrative features such as The Right Stuff or First Man. The filmmakers cut back and forth between a row of scientists in a control room biting their nails and a rocket propelling itself off of a launch pad. This back-and-forth, shot/counter-shot method plays delightfully into our needs to consume space travel as a thrilling spectacle.
And of course, a space flick wouldn’t be that without its stoic and heroic all-American heroes. Return to Space quickly establishes its heroes not as Musk and Bezos, but as Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley: The first American astronauts to fly into space from Cape Canaveral in a decade. The second half of the film is where things really take off (pun intended), as it focuses almost exclusively on the duo’s pulse-racing space mission: The Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch of 2022, AKA the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s first test flight. Here, we are reminded that these are the filmmakers responsible for The Rescue, a documentary about the rescue of 12 boys from a flooded cave in Thailand, and Free Solo, a look at a free solo climber that is guaranteed to make you never want to leave the ground again. The directing duo have a unique talent for creating a riveting atmosphere out of non-fiction material, as evinced by their unflinching look at risk and close proximity to danger.
Interviews with Behnken and Hurley comprise much of the film, which reminds us of how eagerly America once ate up press conferences with space icons like Neil Armstrong and Fred Haise. Space travel has never been just about space travel, but also about creating idols that perfectly illustrate a culture of bravery and patriotism. By indulging Musk’s at times preposterous goals, Return to Space attempts to do the same thing. But the line between a comment on this culture and actual hero-worshiping can blur, leaving us to wonder about the filmmakers’ relationship and/or responsibility toward objectivity.
Return to Space is also highly informative considering the complex subject matter and doesn’t shy away from discussing the ins-and-outs of SpaceX, how it is funded, why it is so difficult to fund space travel, and why we’ve only been to the moon a couple of times. These kinds of explanations are always welcome, especially at the level of efficiency found here—even if the tone does verge on “infomercial” from time to time.
Of course, this salesy tone is bound to rub people the wrong way, as is the portrayal of Musk, which sometimes verges on adulation. Indeed, while space travel has always required idols, Return to Space would benefit from a more nuanced portrayal of the controversial figure accused of hoarding money and upsetting the stock markets with his tweets—even if said figure might eventually put us all on Mars.
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Release Date: April 7, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.