Blast! -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- Documentary filmmaker Paul Devlin follows his astrophysicist brother Mark to Sweden, Canada and Antarctica in "Blast!", a puffed-up feature that has the look and feel of a high-tech funding proposal. The travails of launching a telescope in polar settings prove moderately entertaining, but too much of the film is devoted to less rewarding material.

Theatrical prospects look iffy. "Blast!" should enjoy a better reception on cable.

Opening scenes set up an ultimately irrelevant cliff-hanging situation in Antarctica before backtracking 15 months to the Esrange Space Center in Sweden. There, Mark Devlin and his partner Barth Netterfield prepare for the maiden voyage of their invention, a Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope, or BLAST. Designed to observe the infrared light given off by the heated dust surrounding newborn stars, the telescope could offer a window into the universe of eight billion years ago.

The machine is an amusingly ramshackle affair seemingly put together with aluminum foil and duct tape. Some of the technology on display is surprisingly old-fashioned, like the helium balloon that lifts the telescope into the thin gases of the upper atmosphere. Bad weather causes extensive delays, leaving plenty of time for the scientists and their graduate student assistants to kvetch about homesickness. Some viewers will find a toothless debate over the existence of God little better than padding.

Director Devlin, who has a long background in producing and editing television documentaries, brings some zip to the earlier portions of the film, although he has trouble determining how much or little scientific information to include. Talking heads keep insisting that BLAST will provide new insights into how the universe was formed, but for the uninitiated, the goals of the project remain frustratingly vague.

Astrophysicists Devlin and Netterfield come off as talented, if nerdy, but neither displays much of a personality. About the only notable insight into their lives comes when Devlin reveals that his father Thomas, part of a team of high-energy physicists who discovered the top quark particle, was also absent from home for long stretches.

Once the film shifts back to Antarctica, Paul Devlin can take advantage of the unearthly beauty that surrounds McMurdo Station, offering stunning landscapes that compensate somewhat for repetitive scenes of taping down parts and inflating the balloon. The payoff for the project is a map of nascent galaxies that according to Mark Devlin will "make a quantum leap in our understanding of what's going on in the universe." Unfortunately, mining the research will take as much as 15 years. If that sounds anticlimactic, you may need to check your geek credentials.

Opened: June 12 (Paul Devlin Productions)
Production companies: A Paul Devlin production in association with BBC Storyville, YLE/FST Finland, Discovery Channel Canada, SVT Sweden, ARTE France
Director/director of photography/editor: Paul Devlin
Producers: Paul Devlin, Claire Missanelli
Executive producer: Nick Fraser
Co-producer: Louise Rosen
Consulting producers: Robert Hawk, Julie Anderson
Associate producers: Hillary Kollos, Amber Yoder
Music: Richard Martinez
No rating, 74 minutes