Film Review: First Orbit
Tuesday 12 April 2011 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first ever human spaceflight, when 27 year old Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit onboard Vostok 1. He took off from Baikonur in the Soviet Union, headed east at 14,000 miles an hour, and returned to the USSR 108 minutes later to enter the history books.
“First Orbit” is also 108 minutes long. It was made by documentary maker Chris Riley to mark the anniversary, and his intention was to recreate as exactly as possible the view that Yuri Gagarin would have had of the Earth on his voyage. To do this he worked with astronauts on board the International Space Station to get footage of the same parts of the Earth that Gagarin flew over, and at the same time of day. This footage was then blended with archival footage, the original Soviet radio transmissions between Gagarin and the ground, and a score by Philip Sheppard.
The film is not a documentary in the traditional sense. More of an artistic concept film, it reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, another film in which dialogue is absent and a powerful effect is achieved only with images and music.
The first half hour was quite gripping, hearing Gagarin’s frequent communications with the ground while watching stunning long shots of the Earth drifting by far below. The music was atmospheric and beautiful and the overall effect was impressive. But then Gagarin slipped out of radio contact with the Soviet Union, and passed into the night. The film faithfully sticks to Gagarin’s orbital schedule but there’s not much to see in the middle of the Pacific at night.
It was a long night over a large ocean, and it must have been weird for Gagarin to be speeding over the Earth alone in silence. But then came the stunning sunrise, radio contact resumed, and the spacecraft flew over land once more. The end of the film poignantly reminded us that Gagarin died just a few years after his incredible trip.
In summary, this is an atmospheric film and an impressive tribute to Gagarin. It might have been even better if the night was far shorter, but the makers persevered with actual timings and that’s no bad thing.
You can watch the film yourself here.
Review by Roger Wesson
Film watched at Wilkins Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL as part of the worlds largest film premiere (shown simultaneously in in over 70 countries around the world).
Film screening organised by Roger Wesson.