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Return to Space review: Real emotions play second fiddle in documentary selling SpaceX and Elon Musk’s vision

The two-hour-long documentary film ends up being a digital shrine for Elon Musk, dedicating most of its time talking about the founder of SpaceX. 

  • Akshay Krishna

Last Updated: 04.05 PM, Apr 16, 2022

Return to Space review: Real emotions play second fiddle in documentary selling SpaceX and Elon Musk’s vision

Story: This Netflix documentary pieces out the rise of Elon Musk and SpaceX and how the company makes the first commercial spacecraft that completed a mission to the International Space Station. The documentary gives a look into what drives Musk as well as a look into two astronauts and other engineers at SpaceX, who were part of the historic mission. 

Review: One would expect a documentary about a US space mission to take astronauts to the International Space Station to be at least engaging. But Netflix’s Return to Space is anything but. And the biggest reason for it failing, is that it dedicates most of its time talking about, and rather extensively, about Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who is heading the privatised mission. 

The documentary keeps a close eye on SpaceX and their long tried and tested mission to finally take astronauts from the United States to the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting the planet, after years of using Russia's help to get there. The documentary offers a lot of visuals into how such a mission is carried out, with videos from inside spacecraft, control centre and even from the ISS. 

Following the aftermath of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster of 2003, millionaire Elon Musk started SpaceX. The unlikely growth of the company is documented in the film, with all its biggest highlights covered up in a gold wrapper for the viewers. From their first successful launch to orbit to creating the first reusable rockets. While this is the case, the fault in all this is how the documentary elevates Musk to a position of the world’s savior. From his own interviews from the past to people working in his payroll speaking about him, it feels like the sole purpose of the documentary is to elevate the status of the business magnate. 

The main focus of the documentary is the SpaceX mission where they launched the Dragon capsule, which delivered NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, marking the first time a commercial spacecraft completed a mission to the ISS. While it constantly sidetracks to the story and life of Musk, what little the documentary offers about the life of the two astronauts are something fresh. The emotions, their life and family, the mindset before a launch, are all things you want to see. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi get the raw human emotions right – be it of the astronauts or the hundreds that work in the control rooms of NASA or SpaceX. 

Another issue with the documentary is that while it puts Musk and SpaceX on a pedestal, it leaves out the bits that people have questioned about the company and its owner, such as the environmental concerns SpaceX launch sites cause. Even though there is a small bit about Musk smoking a blunt at Joe Rogan’s show, the documentary leaves out other bits that the billionaire owner has done such as his attacks on journalists and even downplaying the pandemic and the COVID-19 virus.

While the story of Musk and SpaceX is important and interesting on its own, the way the documentary ends up being a digital shrine for Musk just can't be looked past. The Netflix docu-film will cause more questions in the minds of a neutral viewer, but to the die-hard fans of Musk (we know you exist), the documentary is one that you can thoroughly enjoy.   

Verdict: Return to Space ends up focusing too much on Musk, his rise and his erratic billionaire behavior. There was quality content to be made, about two astronauts who venture to space in a historic mission, but the documentary ends up being about the man who funded the program. While it might seem like a two hour long advert for most viewers, it can work well with Musk’s fans.