Red Heaven (documentary) ★★★

At first glance, Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe’s Red Heaven seems like a work of fiction, somewhat of a dower prequel to Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Red Heaven follows six crew members as they embark on one of NASA’s first explorations into what it would take to sustain human life on Mars, through the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation (HI-SEAS) programme.


Red Heaven presents itself at an interesting intersection in the documentary world; formulaically it works like a found footage documentary, narratively it’s more of an “I’m an astrobiologist, get me out of here!” reality show. It’s fascinating to see the Shakesperian scenarios that arise simply from the isolation of six people from the rest of the world. And it’s not just inside the tent where the drama is created; one of the most touching scenes is when Tristan Brassingwhaighte, a budding space architect, reflects on how it feels like the rest of the world has “forgotten” them– emails from family and friends are massively delayed, if sent at all, and conversation short and fleeting. It’s easy, at first, to dismiss Red Heaven as being somewhat melodramatic – there are surely worse fates in the world than to be sequestered away in the Hawaiian volcanic plateaus with some of the brightest minds of the 21st century for the good of humanity and the future of space exploration.

However, the question of ‘why’ is not ignored for long: why are these six people putting themselves through a psychologically draining experiment? Why is NASA so eager not just to go to Mars but to sustain human life there? Above all: what does all this mean for us? It’s frankly refreshing to see a documentary confront the ethics of space colonization head on. Though it’s certainly not a focal point of the narrative, the inclusion of German scientist Christiane Heinicke’s narration throughout the film is a haunting but timely summation of our collective gaze spacewards:

“Why do we do this? Why do we dream of living on a barren, desolate planet millions of miles from home? Is it because we’re irrevocably devastating our own planet? Maybe we’re looking for a second chance, free from the burden of our past mistakes… The possibility of a new beginning in a new world.”

Red Heaven didn’t know how prescient it would be five years after its inception. In the time since the crew of six first went into the dome, we as a species have had to deal with our own dome experience brought to us by COVID. Fires have terrorized landscapes with frightening escalation, Greta Thunburg has become the voice of a generation demanding change and the ho-hum twiddling of political thumbs at cornerstone events like COP26 (2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) is becoming increasingly frustrating with the almost pathological dedication to do nothing of any worth. Tesla’s space ventures inch closer to actuality, Jeff Bezos himself went for a short jaunt furthering the push for “space tourism”, and Richard Branson got a slice of galactic pie too. Space, which for most of us seems such an improbable dream, is becoming an increasingly tangible destination; our ladder to the sky is slowly becoming a stairway to heaven.

The only thing I could think of when watching Red Heaven was how much it speaks back to great sci-fi. On reflection, I had to wonder that perhaps great sci-fi was writing towards what would one day become Red Heaven. As I watched the crew members descend on volcanic rock with hazmat suits and watch the world from a tiny window of see-through plastic, I thought of Contact’s (Robert Zemeckis) quip that if there was no other form of intelligent life in the universe it “would be an awful waste of space”. I thought of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the eternal question that plagues much of space colonization: what happens to the people left on Earth? Every locked room space drama– from Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) to Life (Daniel Espinosa) and all the others in between– played out before me as love bloomed and tension rose in a tiny dome that may one day change the course of human history. 

It’s daunting to not only watch but review a piece like Red Heaven. I can’t help but wonder if my thoughts on this film will have changed by 2030, the decade in which NASA hopes to begin the human mission to Mars. On a personal note, after I watched it I went for a walk. In Ireland, around this time, it starts getting dark by 4pm, and nearly all light is gone by 6pm. It was a clear night, which for Dublin is rare, and I was able to make out a few constellations that have stayed with me since I was a child; the Big and Little Dipper, Ursa Major, the Lynx, the eternal but ephemeral North Star, which promises us safe passage home. It was incredibly disconcerting, in that moment, to look up at the same night sky that guided three wise men, that inspired Galileo, that is the subject of one of the greatest works of modern art and made Van Gogh say “I know very little of anything, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

We share our night sky with centuries of stargazers and dreams and people who longed for something more. Our ancestors have stood under Nanna, Luna and Selene for thousands upon thousands of years. And that light that was theirs is now ours. The legacy they forged for us to make it to the 21st century lives on. And in another thousand years I can’t help but wonder where my successors might be standing, and if it will be the same sky at all. We stand on the cusp of a great and terrible something; whether it be beauty or terror we don’t yet know. Despite the fact that Red Heaven sets itself out to be a film about going to Mars, it’s actually a stirring and deeply moving portrait of life on Earth. 

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