SXSW Film Review: The Hunt for Planet B [Nathaniel Kahn, 2021]


While it is generally accepted that the answer to all questions in the Universe is 42, it is not clear how it applies to the question of advanced civilizations out there. Can there only be 42 planets that sustain life at any one time? Are there 42 different recipes to build self-sustaining lifeforms? Perhaps there are 42 planets, organic molecules be damned, that form themselves a long-range intergalactic “civilization” on a time-scale unfathomable to our feeble instruments of thought?

The exo-planet issue has of course been resolved recently. You will recall that in February 2017, NASA announced their findings in the TRAPPIST-1 system, where not only could planets be found, but every single one is Earth-sized and at least three of them are in the habitable Goldilocks zone. Naturally, the only thing on most people’s mind was: can we ever move there? Travel posters were soon designed about these exotic paradises, where 6 “moons” pirouette across the horizon like cheap targets in some fun-fair. Never mind that these environs would probably kill even short-term visitors in fascinatingly unanticipated ways: “For several trillion dollars, experience radiantly purple sky as a 300 millisecond short-term memory just before your skull is blasted open by the steam from your own eyeballs!”

The Hunt for Planet B is a compositionally straight-forward documentary. Interviews with leading scientists and engineers working in telescope construction and exoplanet research are stitched together to introduce their origins, passions, and concerns on the question of finding a second home. It’s like surveying the consensus among cartographical wizards from the 15th century about the possibility and morality of moving to Terra Incognita, except it contains exclusive footage during the construction of the James Webb telescope. The many personal vignettes from the scientists add to the human element, and are happily not included just to bond the pieces of footage together. That job falls to the occasional radio broadcast background from the ’80s, reminding us just how close a Planet B might be: TRAPPIST-1 is just 40 light years away, still basking in “Just the Two of Us” from Bill Withers, #18 on the charts in 1981, for the first time.

It is clearly a universal curiosity to seek out or refute the possibility of another Earth out there, making the topics of this film a perennial interest. While it focuses on the search, which is the least we can do at the moment, a huge issue as we become more equipped to explore distant worlds is the philosophy with which we approach such travel: are we just looking for a way to leave our present abode like an irresponsible interstellar renter? As highlighted in the film, there are already “ethical” calls to curb exo-planetary hunts because it distracts from our current ecological plights. But we could also look forward to contrast our planet with a truly feasible alternative, in hopes to re-affirm the bond with our home world. There are even more convoluted and existential discussions to be had, of course, but here the film leaves it simply at the pragmatic question: “Would you go”? Personally, interplanetary travel is little different from intra-planetary travel, and shit gets left behind. (Literally.) I would hope that we think deep and hard about the ramifications before breaking wind on another planet only to leave an irreversible stink.

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest