The line between documentary and narrative filmmaking is a blurry one. A great documentary should tell a story just as well as a narrative film; in its way, it has “characters” and a “plot” the same way works of fiction do. The audience should be genuinely excited, thrilled, or moved based on the story the documentary presents us. The problem with 14 Minutes From Earth is that it doesn’t really have a story in the traditional sense. The film plays like 84 minutes of exposition, constantly conveying information without investing in any kind of emotional journey.
That said, the information on display is fascinating. The science and technological advancements the film traffics in are often truly astonishing. It’s just that the film’s subject isn’t all that engaging. 14 Minutes From Earth is about Alan Eustace, a Google executive who broke the record for the highest free-fall jump from the stratosphere in 2014, breaking the record previously held by Felix Baumgartner in 2012. Baumgartner’s stunt was well-documented, whereas Eustace didn’t get nearly as much press. But Baumgartner, a professional daredevil, might have made for a more interesting subject. Eustace never has much of a reason for doing his stunt other than what appears to be boredom, and there’s not exactly much conflict throughout the movie that might make his struggle compelling. They need to build equipment? They build equipment. They need to get a spacesuit? They get a spacesuit. There’s no long-term goal or problem that persists, and it occasionally makes the film a dull watch.
But the way the film outlines and explains its science is genuinely interesting, and the directors do manage to capture Eustace’s jump in spectacular fashion, getting unique camera angles from a variety of cool vantage points. The team behind the jump built some incredible technology, and the film captures it all in intense detail.
In the end, 14 Minutes From Earth plays less like a feature documentary and more like a television special airing on The Science Channel – I could easily see this playing in a high school engineering class. Some cheesy narrative tics aside (this is the kind of movie that plays a record scratch sound effect to indicate something shocking), the film manages to remain interesting, even when its not always engaging.
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