'Point of No Return': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2018

POINT OF NO RETURN - Still 1 - publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Point of No Return
Mission accomplished.

Two daring pilots navigate a solar-powered experimental aircraft around the world in Noel Dockstader and Quinn Kanaly’s absorbing documentary.

The dream of flight may be almost as old as humanity itself, and it’s constantly evolving with every new innovation. Leonardo da Vinci conceived how flight could be technologically achieved, and generations of pilots have pushed aircraft from the North Carolina Outer Banks bluffs through the stratosphere and to the moon with the advent of spacecraft. All of these accomplishments, however, relied on fossil fuels to achieve their objectives, because it wasn’t until the second millennium that solar-powered aircraft even became feasible.

Advances in aerospace engineering gave record-setting Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard the opportunity to begin developing a project in the early 2000s that would send a solar energy-fueled plane on the first-ever around-the-world flight. It would be an “airplane that could fly forever — no noise, no pollution — that was the dream from the beginning,” he recalls. Inspired by the Apollo moon missions, Piccard spent more than a decade testing a prototype aircraft along with engineer and former Swiss fighter pilot Andre Borschberg. Point of No Return charts the launch of the pioneering Solar Impulse on its unprecedented journey in a fascinating feat of human and scientific accomplishment.

With an unheated, unpressurized cockpit large enough for only one pilot, the two adventurers plan to alternate segments of the flight, which begins in 2015 in the United Arab Emirates with Borschberg taking the controls after the project’s mission control center in Monaco gives the all-clear. Although the ultralight Solar Impulse weighs little more than a typical SUV, its wings covered with photovoltaic cells practically equal the span of a commercial aircraft, designed to collect the energy of the sun, which is stored in onboard batteries. Entirely custom-built with four propeller-driven engines, it’s a plane so advanced that it’s considered an experimental aircraft.

Following flights from Oman to India and then on to Myanmar and China, the aircraft encounters turbulent weather that forces the plane down for an unscheduled stop in Japan, where it’s grounded by a torrential storm that damages the solar cells and delicate onboard electronics. It takes several weeks to get the Solar Impulse restored to flight readiness, but the weather over the Pacific turns unpredictable, forcing the flight team to make some difficult decisions. To complete the crossing to Hawaii, Borschberg must undertake a nonstop five-day solo flight that will put him beyond a point of no return once it becomes impossible to safely turn back to Japan.

Although most of the focus remains on the pilots and their remarkable plane, the film also reveals the accomplished team of more than 120 scientists and engineers at mission control in Monaco, as well as those who support the flight at each international stop. In particular, two meteorologists bear an enormous responsibility assisting with developing the flight plans for Solar Impulse, which could unexpectedly thrust the pilots into imminent danger with any severe weather changes.

As the Solar Impulse’s journey stretches well beyond its six-month schedule, the project’s secondary objective to educate audiences about the issues of fossil fuel consumption and climate change takes on increasing prominence. Although the pilots, as well as filmmakers Noel Dockstader and Quinn Kanaly, emphasize the importance of these concerns, there’s scant urgency in their treatment of them and few attempts to associate the plane’s advanced technology with emerging scientific solutions to deal with the global crisis.

In fact, Kanaly and Dockstader dispense almost entirely with any detailed background on the history of the Solar Impulse project. Instead, they rely on the sometimes dramatic developments of the successive flight segments to grab attention, but during the plane’s downtime it can be difficult to maintain that same level of tension while scientists and engineers discuss complex flight concerns.

Clearly, however, the accomplishments of the Solar Impulse crew consistently capture the imagination of the media, as well as a significant following of aeronautical enthusiasts, tech devotees and fascinated schoolkids along the flight route and online around the world. Although the adventurers may not discover any scalable solutions to addressing climate change, they impressively demonstrate the accomplishments of a complex technological project showcasing the adaptable applications of photovoltaic energy.

Directors-producers: Noel Dockstader, Quinn Kanaly
Executive producers: Ian Reinhard, Angus Macqueen, Dana Nachman
Directors of photography: Mathieu Czernichow, Yoann Le Gruiec, Daniel Meyers, Payam Azadi, Noel Dockstader
Editors: Jean Kawahara, Christie E. Herring, Noel Dockstader
Music: Dave Tweedie
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

95 minutes