'The Most Unknown': Film Review

A shallow tour through very deep subjects.

Nine scientists from different fields meet in a round-robin of wonder in Ian Cheney's doc.

A few years ago, Ian Cheney's charming documentary The Search for General Tso turned a look at one tiny piece of Chinese-American history into an eye-opening commentary on immigration, assimilation and cultural myth-making. His latest effort, The Most Unknown, which seeks intellectual common ground between researchers in a slew of scientific fields, goes in rather the opposite direction: diving into the mysteries of the cosmos, but finding itself stuck in the shallow end of the pool.

Selecting nine scientists from disciplines ranging from psychology to astrophysics, Cheney finds one thing they all have in common: Whether it's dark matter or the question of how billions of synapses host a single human consciousness, each spends his or her days pursuing knowledge that may be unattainable.

In some cases, that possible unattainability is just a question of daunting numbers. Luke McKay, an astrobiologist who collects samples of microbes in Earth's hot springs while trying to imagine the forms life might take elsewhere in the galaxy, draws a visitor a tree of life — from humans to palm trees to microscopic organisms — to illustrate the vast diversity of species we haven't yet been able to study. In other cases, as with Axel Cleeremans' work on that connection between the brain and the self, experimenters are treading ground previously reserved for philosophers.

Cheney's conceit here is to hang out with the eggheads in groups of two, setting up blind dates between them. One visits another in the lab or in the field, then, after they've picked each other's brains a bit and maybe shared a pint, the second interviewee goes off to meet a third. The third goes to visit a fourth, and so on. Fortuitously, this takes us around the globe, allowing for the occasional beautiful aerial shot of Costa Rican coastline, Nevada's Black Rock Desert, et cetera.

But with so many discussions to drop in on, each with its own stuff to show off — we see the world's most accurate atomic clock here, go spelunking for furry cave-grown slime there, then put on a swimming cap studded with electrodes to try to control robots with nothing but brain waves — each sequence can only hint at what's fascinating about its field. Nearly all these subjects would be fascinating dinner companions, and watching them interact is enjoyable. But one wonders if the experience would be richer as a TV series, with each interaction getting an episode to itself — possibly with a third-wheel host sitting in on all the meetings of strangers, pointing out common themes in their conversations.

Though it's more literal-minded, the film seems to pursue something like the sense of slow-accreting epiphany in Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, where four obsessive men showed us what topiary gardening and lion taming had in common with robotics and the study of mole rats. We get intimations of that kind of profundity here, but it's fleeting. As pleasant as it is to watch astrophysicist Rachel Smith get to play tourist in one of Victoria Orphan's submarines, diving to observe the weird critters that live near a burbling methane seep, the fun is over nearly before it begins, leaving a viewer feeling more diverted than edified.

Production company: Motherboard
Distributor: Abramorama
Director-producer: Ian Cheney
Executive producers: Greg Boustead, Thobey Campion, Derek Mead
Directors of photography: Michael James Murray, Emily Topper
Editors: Ian Cheney, Daniel Quintanilla
Composers: Simon Beins, Ben Fries

92 minutes