Film Review: Hubble 3D

Large-format, 3D account of the 2009 expedition to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

Sure to be a staple of class trips, Hubble 3D adds a spoonful of educational medicine to justify its breathtaking visuals. The immensities of outer space are ideally suited to the IMAX format, and there are sights here to awe adult as well as child. Getting to them requires some modest boosterism from NASA, as well as background footage of astronaut training and hijinks, all of which passes quickly enough.

The bulk of the film focuses on mission STS-125, a last-ditch attempt by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. Plagued by problems since it was launched into orbit in 1990, the Hubble has needed five repair, or "service," trips to modify or replace everything from optics to cameras. As narrator Leonardo DiCaprio explains, each mission required catching up to the telescope in orbit and then securing it to the cargo bay. Astronauts then donned space suits and performed the necessary repairs on the open body of the Hubble.

The repair footage is unexpectedly eerie, despite our exposure to years of space walks in scores of sci-fi films. The IMAX camera captures with startling clarity just how difficult and frightening it is to move at all in a space suit, let alone disassemble complicated electronics.

The astronauts' gung-ho optimism is infectious, even if their comments are pitched too often to the very young. Older viewers may understand NASA's efforts to present itself in the best possible light, and forgive the kid-oriented bits about zero-gravity bathrooms. Still, Hubble 3D could have dropped some padding for meatier fare: even at a brisk forty minutes, the film runs out of things to say.

For some, the heart of Hubble 3D will be the telescope's discoveries. Although the filmmakers don't mention it, these have been modified by computers. Color has been added, for example, as have stereo effects. But what the Hubble has revealed is astonishing. Early in the film the camera zooms in on a nebula near Orion's belt. The shot is majestic, the imagery beautiful, but not far removed from familiar textbook photos. Then something spectacular happens. Unlike earlier documentaries, the camera never stops—it keeps reaching further and further into space, not just opening up a view of a canyon of clouds 90 trillion miles wide, but diving down into the cloud itself.

It can be unnerving to realize how insignificant our sun is. The narration notes that there may be a hundred billion stars in our galaxy; in one Hubble photograph, there are over two thousand galaxies. Hubble 3D may not dwell on our role within the enormity of the universe, but the film inevitably raises difficult questions.