Six young adults chronicle their participation in a yearlong NASA experiment designed to replicate the physical and psychological conditions of a mission to Mars.
Red Heaven is timely in a way that the filmmakers could not have anticipated when they started making the documentary five years ago: It gazes head-on at isolation, confinement, boredom and stress — issues that nearly everyone is confronting in some combination or another as the world goes on coronavirus lockdown.
But there’s a lightness to the film as it explores weighty matters, along with a dash of reality show dynamics, framing cosmic questions in a familiar format. All of this is in the name of science; the central contrivance is a NASA-funded experiment that putsix strangers in a 1,200-square-foot dome on the slope of a Hawaiian volcano, with limited resources, for a year.
Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe, both making their debuts at the helm of a feature-length film, received permission to give GoPros and other cameras to the project’s participants — three men and three women, two from Europe and the rest American. During the 12-month “production” process, DeFilippo and Gorringe directed remotely, providing shot lists and interview questions to their sequestered subjects. The doc is drawn primarily from the resulting footage, supplemented by striking views of the otherworldly terrain that surrounds the dome, well-deployed historical material and a subtle, evocative score by William Ryan Fritch.
The film (originally scheduled to compete in the Documentary Feature Competition of SXSW and now a selection of the online version of the Copenhagen festival CPH:DOX) is concerned first and foremost with the psychology of the setup. It offers no earth-shattering conclusions — unless it comes as a shock that co-workers can get under your skin when there’s no real way to escape them. Still, this is a well-edited distillation of the gathered footage, posing thoughtful questions about basic human needs, the instinct for exploration and the increasingly urgent matter of the survival of the species.
The doc follows a mission of the Mars simulation habitat known as HI-SEAS (for Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation)that began in August 2015. (The yearlong project was the fourth of six HI-SEAS missions, and the longest.) The crew can send and receive videos and emails, with a 20-minute delay between the dome and “Earth,” but otherwise have no internet access — for good and for bad, no constant influx of news. They don simulated spacesuits when they venture outside for geological research. They subsist on freeze-dried food and a few slow-growing plants tended to by soil scientist Carmel Johnston. And they’re required to complete a constant stream of surveys that document their state of mind.
On Day 27 they’ve already completed more than a thousand surveys, and their collective mood, according to those questionnaires, is “excellent.” But as the surveys pile up and the once-“roomy” quarters grow tight, and as the cheerful laughter about two-minute showers gives way to aggrieved asides about water conservation, the group’s “stated overall mood” goes down. There’s nothing surprising about that trajectory, but because these six have been chosen for their steadiness and their perceived ability to withstand stress and deprivation, their satisfaction is rarely expressed overtly. No Big Brother tantrums here, but watch for pointed silences and well-timed eye rolls.
In addition to Johnston, the team includes two wannabe astronauts — chief engineering officer Andrzej Stewart and Sheyna Gifford, a tai-chi-practicing physician from St. Louis — as well Christiane Heinicke, a geophysicist from Germany and the mission’s chief science officer; Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a grad student in the highly specialized field of space architecture; and astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux, a ukulele-playing Paris native.
Perhaps because they’re more forthcoming, some members of the crew receive considerably more screen time than others. Often at the center of the low-key action is Heinicke, whose journals play a key role in shaping Red Heaven. Her musings, particularly on Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions of a century ago, are poised between poetic reach and introspection. At its strongest, so is the documentary.
The inevitable tensions between individual and communal needs arise, factions form, a romance begins. “As time goes by,” Verseux observes, “people reveal themselves more and more.” For Bassingthwaighte, the combination of annoying colleagues and the long silences from friends and family back home creates “a horrible psychological nightmare.” After many months, even the normally hale and hearty Heinicke looks wan and has difficulty focusing.
The study findings will be released in 2021. In the meantime, this inquiry into “crew cohesion” and personal resilience offers a telling glimpse into what might lie ahead on a much wider scale than a six-person mission on a faux Mars.
Production companies: Sandbox Films in association with Seeker, Naked Edge Films and Insignia Films
Director-producers: Lauren DeFilippo, Katherine Gorringe
Screenwriter-editor: Katherine Gorringe
Executive producers: Greg Boustead, Jessica Harrop, Caroline Smith, Suzanne Kolb, Miriam Mintz, Daniel J. Chalfen, Jim Butterworth
Director of photography: David Alvarado
Editor: Katherine Gorringe
Composer: William Ryan Fritch
In-habitat cinematography and sound recording: Tristan Bassingthwaighte, Sheyna Gifford, Christiane Heinicke, Carmel Johnston, Andrzej Stewart, Cyprien Verseux
Sales: Endeavor Content
In English, German and French