Movie Review: Return to Space

Elon Musk has been in the headlines recently with his bid to buy Twitter with the noble ambition of restoring freedom of speech to the platform. Having 93.8 million followers, the business magnate, investor and bigwig billionaire of SpaceX, Tesla, the Boring Company, Neuralink and OpenAI already has a defining influence on our futures. The South African-born American entrepreneur has become a household name over the years and much of his fame can be attributed to his on-going work and development at SpaceX.

Return to Space is a documentary from Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin who turn their focus to the stars after their astonishing work on Free Solo and The Rescue. This conventional documentary chronicles the rise of this pioneering company, the advent of space exploration commercialisation and charts their many failures and triumphs in getting to the point where they can launch astronauts into space and create a more sustainable and cost-effective method of launching and retrieving rockets. Detailing the history of NASA’s missions, the United States’ flagging exploration programmes and an overall decline in space expeditions, Return to Space positions Musk’s SpaceX company as the next generation, foreshadowing more commercial and mainstream ventures from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson.

Aiming to forge ahead with plans to get people back on the moon and eventually to Mars to instigate multi-planetary existence, there’s nothing small about SpaceX, which is currently partnering with NASA to help astronauts reach the International Space Station. Making space travel more possible and more regular, SpaceX wants to reinvigorate the flagging American space program, instead of the country deferring to Russia to get their astronauts into space. Through interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, perspectives from bloggers and incredible launch site footage, Return to Space pieces together the last two decades and story up until now.

Hinging on its first two astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, this documentary offers an intimate and humanistic point-of-view on these brave space explorers. Getting a behind-the-scenes vantage point, we discover both men are married to astronauts. This gives their partners and children more understanding of the possible dangers and sacrifices of embarking on such an endeavour. There’s an emotional aspect to Return to Space that keeps you rooting for the Behnken and Hurley duo, whose personal and professional lives intersect. This makes the documentary more engaging and suspenseful like a taut space thriller. Even though you may know the outcome, there’s still a feeling of spontaneity, enough to conjure up hesitancy based on the precision of each launch, docking and even parachute deployment.

elon musk return to space

“Okay, one more like this?”

Vasarhelyi and Chin offer a comprehensive tour of SpaceX’s development, an accessible yet detailed excursion of space exploration that features exquisite shots from the launch sites, space station and spacewalks with some philosophical undertones. Harnessing interviews and press conferences with Musk through the ages, behind-the-scenes footage on crucial launch days and extensive interviews with their primary astronaut subjects and engineers, the filmmakers craft a sleek and infotaining documentary.

While it’s overlong and at times feels like a SpaceX advert, Return to Space is an entertaining and compelling space exploration documentary. The visuals glide, keeping a good pace and balance in terms of history catching up to present day, using a slow-build to ramp up anticipation with a few focus areas surrounding the actual mission for dad astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. In spite of its “elongated” running time and The Lego Movie aspirations, it’s still an important and eye-opening account of what’s currently happening space-wise. There’s a groundbreaking sense of urgency underlying each challenge as engineering and sustainability couple in an attempt to embolden our inter-planetary potential within the Milky Way.

Backed by a powerful and influential billionaire, Return to Space could serve as the precursor to a much more startling vision of what lies ahead for humanity. Having recently seen the pandemic reflect many outbreak films, Hollywood somehow doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched anymore. Watching Musk wax lyrical about interstellar travel and brandishing a flame-thrower inspired by a character from Spaceballs, also makes you wonder why South African-born visionaries Elon Musk and Neill Blomkamp haven’t partnered or founded a film studio together.

The bottom line: Eye-opening