Film Review: The Most Unknown

Nine researchers from different disciplines pair off to hunt answers to the knottiest problems of existence in this enthusiastic and fetchingly lensed buffet of inquiry.
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The fact that there is a historical term for the supposed Great Age of Discovery suggests that there is nothing much left for humanity to figure out, that the maps have been filled in and all the big questions answered. That point of view wouldn’t pass muster with anybody involved with Ian Cheney’s exuberantly curious new documentary The Most Unknown. For the scientists profiled in this movie, the more that humanity has discovered only seems to have spurred ever more questions that they’re just itching to get a crack at solving.

The concept that Cheney (The Search for General Tso, The City Dark) came up with is simple and usefully fluid. In each of the nine segments, one scientist travels to meet another scientist of a different discipline to learn about the research they’re doing. Then the scientist whose research has just been discussed heads off to a new location (usually remote, always beautifully lensed) where somebody from a separate school of study tells them about what they’re up to. And so on.

The Most Unknown starts promisingly, deep underneath Italy, where microbiologist Jennifer Macalady can be found pointing at black striations on the cave ceiling. She marvels that it’s “probably the most beautiful slime I’ve ever seen” and admits “we don’t know how they form.” There are most likely a lot of politics in the microbiologist world not visible to the outside world. But from a civilian’s perspective, somebody who can summon up that level of passion for slime in a dank cave is a person who deserves to go far in that field of study.

Macalady’s voracity for subterranean slime is matched in intensity by her filmic partner, Davide D’Angelo. A physicist at Universita degli Studi di Milano who’s digging into the characteristics of dark matter, D’Angelo and his frizzed-up hair and fizzy speaking style seem at first more born of coffeehouse debate than serious study. But in no time, D’Angelo’s discussion of how even though dark matter probably takes up 85 percent of the known universe we know next to nothing about it has left Macalady at sea.

The Most Unknown uses these type of interactions as linchpins to its broad arguments about the necessity of intellectual curiosity and humility. No sooner has D’Angelo finished blowing Macalady’s mind about dark matter and various quirky knots of Einsteinian relativity confusion than he is given over to the Belgian cognitive therapist Axel Cleermans. The physicist takes part in an experiment wherein he has to try to move a robotic hand using only the power of his mind. But even though just about everything Cleermans is talking about is fully outside D’Angelo’s expertise, he is interested to learn more, one colleague to another.

On the movie goes, hopscotching to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where astrobiologist Luke McCay is studying the potential relationship between rare microbes found in hot springs and organisms that might exist outside of the solar system. Methane sinks on the ocean floor off Costa Rica, quantum physics research in Boulder, an astronomy lab in Hawaii whose telescope points at the very heart of the galaxy, an island research station off Puerto Rico adorably overrun by macaque monkeys—each setting shows more scientists pushing the boundaries of understanding, albeit often in ways that are as obscure to the viewer as the outsider scientist nodding respectfully along.

By its nature, The Most Unknown was certain to be an incomplete thing. There are times when it might have been nice to have Werner Herzog (credited here as “adviser”) provide a spine of dark Teutonic narration to carry us through. What’s here, though, is a rich assortment of wonders. Cheney places viewers in each setting with sweeping, sparkling vistas of strange beauty that would make David Attenborough weep. As different as their backgrounds are, the scientists chosen by Cheney are a uniformly cheerful and eager-to-pitch-in bunch who are more excited than daunted by the odds stacked against their various projects. As observational astronomer Rachel Smith describes her work at one point, “You’ve got a puzzle with a million, or billion pieces. We’ve got one piece.”

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