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'Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine' Netflix Review: Stream It Or Skip It?

Jun 17, 2023

Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine wraps Netflix’s four-part Unknown documentary series, which sort of thematically makes sense if you consider that two episodes are about looking back (at ancient pyramids in The Lost Pyramid and early hominids in Cave of Bones) and two are about looking forward (to militaries’ use of artificial intelligence in Killer Robots and to the knowledge about the universe the James Webb Space Telescope provides in Cosmic Time Machine). The films are also about working scientists making progress in their fields, and in this final Unknown outing, we hang out with NASA engineers and astrophysicists as they work tirelessly and spend billions on a project that’ll give all of humanity an entire new perspective on the universe.

The Gist: The universe is 13.8 billion years old. The James Webb Space Telescope has given us images of celestial bodies from 13.1 billion light years away. Let that loll around on your tongue for a minute. NASA took nearly 30 years and spent $10 billion on developing a hunk of machinery, then shot it into space (an effort we wouldn’t mind seeing replicated for, say, Nickelback or Donald Trump). And the result? It can see quite literally TO THE EDGE OF TIME ITSELF. And this documentary acknowledges this remarkable, history-making achievement of science and civilization by showing us TikTok videos in which people share their excitement about it.

NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn says that seeing “literally” back in time is a “trick of physics,” because it takes time for light to travel through space – sunlight is technically eight minutes old before we see it, because that’s how long it takes to reach Earth. So that light is technically from the past; now stretch that idea to stars and galaxies a gazillion miles away, and you can see things as they were billions of years ago, not as they are right now. And that’s how we can see the early days of the universe itself. Is your mind blown all over the living room wall? It should be.

As the aforementioned expenditures of time and cash imply, the JWST’s journey from concept to taking clear, full-color photos of countless previously never-seen celestial bodies was long and arduous. Key people in the project use terminology like “100 miracles” and “impossible” and “unknown unknowns,” which is amusing because they’re scientists prone to using religion-adjacent language. But it’s absolutely justified – if anything deserves hyperbolic description, it’s a giant space camera that reorients the context of our profoundly miniscule, meaningless lives.

Anyway, long story short, this 64-minute documentary gives us many images of NASA folk standing inside massive laboratories, testing, moving and assembling the various components of the massive, three-story telescope, with its golden, reflective mirrors and parachute-like tinfoil sun shield. The goal was to improve upon the successes and failures of the 1990-launched Hubble telescope by using infrared tech that can see 100 times better than the previous model. At this point, we learn that a “single point failure” is one component of a system that will cause the entire system to fail – and the JWST has 344 of them, which is a whole hell of a lot. So the NASA wonks worked and worked and worked and then launched the damn thing on Christmas Day, 2021. Many bursts of applause and popping champagne corks followed as the project successfully leapt hurdle after hurdle, and by mid-2022, the citizens of the world were eyeballing jawdropping never-before-seen images of the universe, then scrolling on to some kitten memes and Stranger Things spoilers.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: On the most superficial level possible: Hot Tub Time Machine, of course. More to the point: It brings to mind those astronaut documentaries that make you proud to be American, like Apollo 11, or stranger-than-sci-fi stuff like Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know. (Notably, it seems a bit ironic to squint at images of something as massive as the universe on your TV, and lawd help you if you watch on your phone; I expect Deep Sky to inspire more awe when it hits IMAX screens in Oct.)

Performance Worth Watching: It’s tempting to hail the collective international effort behind the telescope and its launch as a triumph of the human spirit, but those people aren’t the star of this show. Nobody’s going to outshine the Universe Itself, which eclipses all else simply by being Itself.

Memorable Dialogue: Lead JWST engineer Mike Menzel whips out an analogy we all can recognize: “Deploying this telescope is like rebuilding an Ikea desk from a million miles away, robotically.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Looking at the JWST imagery prompts one to recontextualize one’s place in space and time: You are less than a speck on a speck of dust in the universe. You aren’t even 0.0000000000000000000001 percent of anything. You might as well be nothing. Good morning!

Anyway. A cursory search on the telescope gave me articles detailing how it discovered water vapor in “a rocky planet-forming zone” and “may have spotted stars formed by dark matter.” How does the JWST do that? Well, the documentary tells us, with some instruments and stuff. It’s not big on detail. Nor is it big on grand, sweeping philosophical notions about what these images tell us about life, the universe and everything. Cosmic Time Machine primarily exists in a lukewarm middle area that briefly touches on both of those extremes, gets into the history of the JWST’s conceptualization and construction, parks us like flies on the wall in NASA offices and command centers for countdowns to launch and other key pieces of its deployment that demand countdowns, quickly profiles a few JWST scientists from diverse backgrounds (including people of underrepresented groups, which feels like tokenism), contextualizes the JWST’s place in the zeitgeist via TikTok, shares some stunning imagery of the cosmos, and does it all in about an hour. It covers a lot of ground, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

I can see how director Shai Gal would want to avoid getting lost in the weeds of technical ins-and-outs and the what-does-it-all-MEAN-ness of this subject matter, but the end result here is underwhelming. And fascinating, for sure, but that’s the nature of the topic, which inspires wonder and curiosity and all the stuff that feeds the intellect. Using observational-doc footage, talking heads and animated recreations, the film gives us a sense of scale and effort, touches on the hopes and dreams and sacrifices of some of the people involved, and churns up that warm, proud feeling of collective achievement in the quest for greater knowledge, and therefore the greater good. But it’s not a very deep dive; the film wades into the water but never submerges itself, which feels like the result of uninspired interviews and an emphasis on broad appeal over minutiae. It functions best as a sturdy introduction to the mighty power of this “cosmic time machine,” but barely touches on its implications.

Our Call: Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine is a pragmatic, functional primer on the significance of the James Webb Space Telescope, good enough reason to STREAM IT. But be warned, it will likely leave you wanting more.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Gist:What Movies Will It Remind You Of?:Performance Worth Watching:Memorable Dialogue:Sex and Skin:Our Take:Our Call: