Director Ian Cheney’s (KSJ ’15) new documentary Bluespace is a lot more experimental than his first film, 2007’s King Corn. That film, which focused on how America’s industrial food system was hurting the environment and human health, took Cheney and a college friend into an Iowa cornfield. Bluespace, as its title suggests, takes us to outer space.
The film explores two worlds: An imagined future in which humankind begins shaping Mars into an earth-like landscape — a common science-fiction trope known as “terraforming” — contrasted with the evolution of New York City’s waterways, which are undergoing their own transformations due to climate change.
“Humans have a tendency to engineer landscapes and attempt to control the natural world,” said Cheney. “The film uses the story of Mars as a way of asking questions about the way we manage landscapes here on earth.”
While Cheney was a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, he spent a lot of time in the department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, steeping himself in the subject’s language and science. This knowledge has filtered into his film, although Bluespace is also an outgrowth of Cheney’s experiences living and working in Brooklyn. His old neighborhood, Red Hook, was flooded in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy, and his office at the time was situated along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal — a toxic site that also flooded during the storm.
“As people, especially around these waterfront landscapes, started talking about how to recover and rebuild, some of the conversations and strategies reminded me of science fiction I’d read as a kid,” said Cheney. “In particular this idea of terraforming inhospitable landscapes into ones that are habitable.”
In that sense, planetary engineering is unfolding all around us, and the looming imperatives of climate change are now forcing policymakers, engineers and conservationists to develop new strategies to cope with an increasingly inhospitable planet — not entirely unlike what might unfold in an imagined settlement of the Red Planet.
“I do think that part of the draw of Mars, said Cheney, “is because it exists in our imagination, it provides a safe space for playing out arguments that are relevant to life here on earth whether that’s arguments about geoengineering, or how best to manage climate change or even what are the best social and political structures to manage a planet. Those are things that we’re debating all the time on earth, but it’s so wrapped up in the history of this place and international conflicts. By transporting that conversation to another planet you can start afresh and gain new perspectives.”
While most films focus on human drama and narratives, Bluespace is more of a thought experiment, demanding more from viewers — but it also has the potential to give them more in return.
“This film is less of a message-driven film like King Corn,” said Cheney, “which was kind of a clarion call for rethinking the state of our food system, getting people to read ingredient labels and get active on farm subsidies.” Bluespace, he suggests, is more about a perspective shift – marrying Cheney’s twin interests of astronomy and environmentalism, and inviting viewers to connect the two.
“One of the most helpful things about peering up into the heavens to a place like Mars,” said Cheney, “is it gives us a perspective on our own issues, and right now on our environmental issues. The more we study other worlds, the more we come to understand our own.”
Bluespace premiered on November 16th, 2015 at DOCNYC.