Movie business reports tell us that documentaries are more popular than ever, relatively speaking. Perhaps it’s due to audiences getting tired of endless sequels. Or maybe, just maybe, moviegoers have decided to latch onto some of the imaginatively produced, newsworthy docs on the market. Case in point: Ian Cheney’s The Most Unknown, a thinking person’s indie swimming against the tide of candy-flavored summer blockbusters.
Filmmaker Cheney’s concept is deceptively simple. A camera crew follows a scientist as they visit another scientist in a related field to talk about the second scientist’s work. The scope of inquiry is always the study of classic unanswered questions: How did life begin? What is consciousness? And so on. The second scientist then visits a third, the third a fourth, and so on, until a daisy chain of nine curious scientific minds has been heard from. It’s all very talky and courageously nerdy — a scientific game of tag.
What a brave framework for mass-market entertainment. These are the sort of characters we typically meet for one or two short scenes in a horror or sci-fi film, brought in to explain some scary phenomenon to the hero, and also to us. A movie almost never follows one of them to get her or his full story, until now. Take molecular biologist Jennifer Macalady, whose spelunking takes her deep into slippery underground caverns to collect slime — not just any slime, but organisms important to the study of the origins of Earth.
After a little time in the lab, Macalady then travels to the Italian Alps to talk to Davide D’Angelo, a physicist whose specialty is dark matter, one of the big unknowns in particle physics. In a research center inside a mountain, beneath 1,800 meters of rock, we get an inkling of why dark matter matters to humankind. In simple terms, it’s the glue that holds the universe together, and it is fiendishly difficult to observe, a basic component of the universe that we know very little about. “It’s moving through us, through our bodies,” explains D’Angelo. “There is so much more matter in the universe than we have realized so far.” D’Angelo gets that animated, obsessive look in his eyes, and suddenly we’re on the threshold of yet another science-fiction adventure.
From there, the wide-ranging, open-ended discussion travels to Brussels, the Black Rock Desert of Nevada (no, not for Burning Man), the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, the United Kingdom, Colorado, the bottom of the ocean, and Cayo Santiago, a tiny island in the Caribbean inhabited solely by various species of monkeys being studied for their perception of social situations. That particular segment seems a bit ridiculous, but the microbial ecologists, astrobiologists, neuroscientists, geobiologists, and cognitive psychologists we hear from are generally engaged in serious studies of basic questions about life on this planet. The conversation is stimulating in a way that, say, Deadpool 2 is not. Just watching The Most Unknown for 88 minutes should raise your IQ by one or two points — as long as you avoid the caramel-corn-flavored vodka cocktails at the multiplex.
The Most Unknown is a product of Motherboard, Vice Media’s tech-culture channel. As such, it is being released — in a deal with the documentary distributor Abramorama — first in theaters, and then on Netflix. After that, the film is designed to be broken into separate episodes and shown on a variety of platforms (YouTube, etc.), including Motherboard’s site. And so a rarefied doc about new discoveries of life origins is being shown in a wide range of situations, with the common denominator of being displayed on some sort of screen. For all we know, the film might conceivably be beamed to distant worlds and, eventually, get picked up for inter-galactic distribution. Other beings may form the opinion that humans are actually reasonable. In the meantime, this is the most intelligent package of cultural-scientific information of the year 2018, wherever you catch it.