2013 // USA // Angela Christian // November 19, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
If one were to judge documentary films strictly on the extent to which they fulfill their primary ambition, director Angela Christian’s Children of the Night would be a rousing success. The film profiles the small circle of passionate professionals who mold the raw imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope into gloriously vivid, high-resolution pictures for public consumption. It is a curious endeavor, demanding the skillsets of the astronomer, digital artist, educator, and public relations professional. Children does a fine job of exposing filmgoers to this thinly documented part of NASA's mission, stoking admiration for the uncommon blend of rigor and intuition that molds the public face of the Hubble program. The film also takes several intriguing detours into other aspects of astronomy education, most prominently into the creation of a textured Hubble picture book for the blind.
The tone of Children is shamelessly swooning, even ecstatic. Christian clearly regards the efforts of this unusual, highly specialized group of scientists as worthy of wider appreciation and understanding. The film flits restlessly between the depicted individuals, providing glimpses of not only their astronomical work, but also their lives beyond the Hubble program. Christian is continually striving to humanize and deepen the portraits it presents: the scientists in question are not just scientists, but ballroom dancers, nature photographers, and soccer coaches. The common worldview of the men and women profiled is one that values knowledge, aesthetics, and pure wonder. Children capably illustrates how this outlook is a perfect fit for the creation and dissemination of striking deep space images.
The film’s indifferent, amateurish cinematography and bargain basement production levels are not especially bothersome; a documentary feature can skate for an impressive distance on the compelling nature of its subject. The glaring flaw in Children—although not a fatal one—is that the film’s enthusiasm for that subject leads to wearying indulgence. At a running time of 109 minutes, it rolls on for an hour longer than is necessary, and as a result often slips into a repetitive, meandering mode. Often, the film revisits previous scenes for no particular reason, offering no new insight or information beyond the revelation that a bloody-minded editor is needed. The film’s use of music embodies the difficulty that Christian has in reigning in her instincts. Even for a post-rock aficionado like yours truly, Children is packed so densely with soaring singles by the likes of Sigur Rós, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky that the soundtrack borders on self-parody. That Children of the Night nonetheless manages to be an edifying experience has less to do with its characteristics as cinema than with the bottomless awe found in the astonishing images of galaxies, clusters, and nebulae.