14 Minutes from Earth is proof that a story worth hearing is not all it takes to make a documentary worth watching. Granted, parts of 14 Minutes deserve and earn your steadfast attention, but keeping focus for the full 90 minutes may entail new leaps in scientific research.
The problem isn’t the story at hand. 14 Minutes from Earth (which, curiously, was co-directed by the guy who wrote the Ryan Reynolds movie Just Friends) covers some magnificent material: the conquest of Alan Eustace, computer scientist and former Vice President of Google, to soar into space attached only to an ad-hoc balloon and then free-fall back down to Earth. Why? To quote George Mallory, “Because it’s there.” And also, because Eustace seems like a bit of a nut.
I say that without a shred of judgment. First off, Eustace’s intellect and bravery are nothing if not impressive. Second, it’s oddballs like these around whom the most compelling stories are born. The problem is, 14 Minutes from Earth isn’t entirely willing to grapple with just how strange a situation, or character, it’s dealing with. Talking heads with the jarringly tranquil Eustace himself suggest to the viewer that this guy, genius though he may be, might have a couple of screws loose. And yet everyone else lent the mic—the crew of scientists who helped make his extraterrestrial journey possible—speaks in surface value niceties, never bothering to dig further into the thematic complexities of the matter at hand. The only interviewee who’s willing to cut a little deeper is Eustace’s wife, Kathy Kwan, who wears her resentment over the dangerous stunt on her sleeve. Still, 14 Minutes isn’t at all interested in this part of its story.
Instead, it trots along matter-of-factly through the process that brings Eustace and his team to ultimate victory. The documentary employs a bare bones design that feels like a glorified Discovery Channel special, right down to the guttural narration and ostensible Flash animation interstitial cards. Though we can appreciate the presumed modesty of an independent documentary venture’s budget, it’s not so much the lack of bells and whistles, but the lack of creativity or charisma in the story’s delivery that really sinks 14 Minutes to the dullards.
Only when we see Eustace take flight does the film encourage true excitement. There are two major instances of this: one about halfway through and one just at the end of the film. To be frank, either one might be viewed independently without loss of any investment. Since we barely get to know Eustace throughout the picture and certainly don’t come to understand the ideological path that led him to this particular passion, it’s not as though we’re watching our hero finally opt for his greatest goal. We’re just watching some guy fly up into and then fall down from space. No matter what the surrounding circumstances, that’s guaranteed to catch your interest.
As such, 14 Minutes cannot really be credited for any exhilaration it inspires. That said, it does, by design, feature some truly invigorating footage. If you’re patient enough to sit through 80 additional minutes of lackluster filmmaking, the actual jumps are something to behold.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 burritos
Images: Tribeca Film Festival
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.