'First Orbit' is probably one of the strangest movies I've ever had to review. Not because it's overly weird, but because it's a completely different experience than just sitting down and taking in a movie. I guess it could be categorized as a documentary, but only in the most literal sense of documenting something.
The something in question is the story of the first human space flight. On April 12, 1961 the Russians sent Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. It was to be the first time any human being had ever ventured outside of the Earth's atmosphere and orbited the planet. Gagarin saw a view of the world that no other human had ever seen in the history of the planet. It was a momentous occasion.
'First Orbit' and its director Christopher Riley ('In the Shadow of the Moon') have a simple objective: to show as closely as possible a real-time view of what Gagarin saw during his inaugural space flight. Since Gagarin didn't bring back any useable video footage Riley enlisted the help of the inhabitants of the International Space Station. Astronaut Paolo Nespoli became the director of photography here as he filmed the Earth below as the space station attempts to follow the same orbit that Gagarin took.
Along with the newly acquired footage from the space station is the original recordings provided by Gagarin as he communicates with the Russian mission control. These old recordings provide a wonderful insight into what Gagarin was feeling and what he was seeing as he continued orbiting the Earth. Finally, wrapping up the whole show is the original music accompaniment provided by composer Philip Sheppard. The music adds a mood-filled aspect to the whole experience. In the special feature included in the release Riley talks about how this music that Sheppard composed for the film was actually a project Sheppard had been working on that was coincidentally inspired by space and space flight. And wouldn't you know it, the music here really helps convey the awe-inspiring feeling one might get from watching this movie.
Here's the catch though. There is no narration. No forced education of any kind. What you see is what you get. This is simply a real-time view, 108 minutes, of an orbit around Earth coupled with the wonderful music and original audio recordings. That's it. See what I mean when I say this is a very different kind of experience? It's pure and simple. A documenting of what Gagarin saw when he became the first man to ever gaze upon this planet from space. Through his numerous reports back to mission control we're able to come to some sort of conclusion about how he felt when he was up there.
In this day and age we've all seen numerous pictures from high-powered telescopes of what Earth looks like from space. We've seen pictures of what Earth looks like from the moon. We routinely check Google Earth seeing the entire planet from a satellite's-eye view. This footage is nothing new, but somehow when it's been pieced together with the original recordings and its mesmerizing soundtrack something happens. It's like you're actually witnessing history taking place.
Not everyone is going to want to sit there and watch Earth slowly move over the screen for 100-plus minutes, but I'm sure there are people that are interested in this. 'First Orbit' is the definition of a niche title. Although, I'm not a huge space geek and I found myself enthralled by its proceedings. It may be for space geeks only, but others may be surprised at how captivating it actually is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'First Orbit' is released on Blu-ray by Attic Room production company. Even though it's only one 25-GB Blu-ray Disc, the movie still comes in a slightly oversized keepcase which is comparable in thickness to the clear Criterion cases. It specifies on the case that this is a region free release.
It must be noted that the English subtitles are not forced upon playing the movie. You'll hear Gagarin's Russian dialogue, but you'll have to manually insist upon English subtitles during the movie to know what he's saying.
Now we have to take into account the limited nature of the shoot. Director of photography Paolo Nespoli was quite limited in the recording equipment that he was able to use to shoot the space station's orbit of Earth. Using what recording equipment they did have I'd say that they came away with a nice, but far-from-perfect video presentation.
The beginning of the film starts out in the daytime as the station slowly orbits Earth. Mountains, valleys, clouds and rivers can all be seen distinctly, carved into the land below. Shadows from the clouds can be seen slowly creeping across the ground. It's easy to wonder what Gagarin may have been thinking as he watched this all for the very first time.
The problems arise when the orbit continues on into the side of the Earth which has been plunged into nighttime. The recording equipment just isn't able to handle the low-light visuals. As the sunlight disappears so does the detail. We're left with a flickering, noise-filled blackness which doesn't compare at all to the striking visuals we got during the day. Micro-blocking and some banding are visible here along with copious amounts of noise. Again, I don't think that this is due to a lackluster transfer, it's simply the best video that they could've got considering the very limited nature of their recording equipment.
Still, there are some marvelous visuals to behold here. When Nespoli moves the camera up to look through a side window in the station we can see the curve of the earth and the thin, bluish layers of atmosphere. In the corner we can see the ultra-bright sun blasting the image unfiltered. Most of what you see here is naturally beautiful in its own way.
'First Orbit' features a 2.0 PCM lossless audio presentation. The audio from Gagarin's voyage has been digitally restored to sound as good as it can five decades later (interesting to note is that these mission recordings are heard in their entirety for the first time, outside of Russia, here).
There really isn't a need for any type of surround sound here so you won't feel like it's missing. Maybe it would've been nice to pipe the beautiful music to the rear speakers in order to envelope the listener in its power, but it wasn't necessary. What you have here is a straightforward presentation which features Gagarin's voice coming through loud and clear while the music plays forcefully in the background.
Everything is clear and concise. Never once, even over the static of the original recordings, is Gagarin's voice lost or hard to hear. Simply put, this is about as good as an audio presentation is going to get for a release like this.
I never thought I'd like to watch a slow-moving image of Earth turning on my television screen, but I must admit to being mesmerized by it. Philip Sheppard's intoxicating soundtrack had a lot to do with my entrancement, but this simple documentary really does convey the awe-inspiring message it sets out to communicate. I'd recommend this movie to anyone, but I understand if it doesn't appeal to some. It's a niche title for sure, but even those who aren't obsessed with space and the history of humans traveling to it might still find something enjoyable here.