In Martin Scorsese's masterful biographical drama film, The Aviator, visionary film director and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) compulsively repeats to audiences his personal mantra and reasoning that drove him to embrace aerospace innovation, declaring: “You see, it’s the way of the future. The way of the future. The way of the future…”
It’s May of 2017 in the capital of Silicon Valley: San Jose, California. In a small auditorium-like classroom, executive director of the Innovation Learning Center, Katie Magrane, is speaking to a group of captivated teachers of the Zero Robotics middle school program. Established by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory alongside NASA and CASIS, the Zero Robotics competition endeavors to provide the marginalized disengaged youth across the United States with the opportunity to use the International Space Station for student experimentation and in assisting space scientists in the zero gravity climate of outer space. Through the course of a summer long competition, various schools compete to write algorithms for SPHERES satellites and advance to the state and national level.
Early in the runtime of Thomas Verrette’s documentary film Zero Gravity, Magrane clearly establishes that “the world is increasingly running on code”. She elucidates to her classroom audience, “Your mission is to build surveying satellites to orbit Mars. That is the Space Race, right now”. If the grand technological race of the early 20th century was in the aviation and aerospace industry, then it is evident that the defining trend of the early 21st century is none other than the Space Race to Mars itself. It is, as DiCaprio’s Hughes would call it, “the way of the future,” and there is perhaps no one greater to spearhead mankind’s journey to Mars than the future leaders of tomorrow.
Verrette’s Zero Gravity -- a passion project years in the making -- follows the intimate and endearing journey of San Jose’s Campbell Middle School team in the Zero Robotics competition through the perspective of their teacher, Tanner Marcoida, and his students Adrien, Advik, and Carol. In an era of documentary filmmaking where the direction of films often loses its grasp over its subjects, Verrette maintains a laser sharp focus on his subjects in a wholesome manner that captures the essence of their personal and collective journeys. A veteran of the film industry for more than a decade and formerly a creative and production executive at FOX, Verrette and his film don’t boast that a master is at work behind the camera.
The greatest asset of Zero Gravity, a film that already has many merits to it, is the seamlessness in which it is made. Advik Gonugunta, Carol Gonzales, and Adrien Engelder, are friendly and passionate ten and eleven year olds (respectively), incredibly open about their fascination with space exploration. Despite their eagerness to speak about their future goals and willingness to invite the crew of the film into their personal space, Zero Gravity excels in that its camerawork never feels invasive. DOP Carlos Marulanda is brilliant in his cinematography, taking audiences everywhere from the personal quarters of its subjects to the ISS and the Moon. At the very pulse of the film is the emotional bond Tanner and his students immediately form with the viewer, and as their coding skills gradually evolve from an amateur level and they begin to write their algorithm, their victories feel like yours. Regardless of whether they advance in the competition, audiences know that both the students and their instructor have an extremely bright future ahead of them.
Zero Gravity also wonderfully showcases the remarkable efforts of Zero Robotics to inspire a future generation of scientists and engineers to undertake the next great leap for mankind in space exploration. Rather than serve as just a competitive academic tournament, Zero Robotics prides themselves on nurturing one’s fascination for space and developing skills that would otherwise not be exposed to students in a traditional school environment.
Even more fitting in the documentary is the uplifting score provided by the prolific and wonderful Penka Kouneva. As Zero Gravity briefly tackles some of the greatest existential questions of our time revolving around space exploration and the detriments of climate change on Planet Earth, the music is a stirring blend of everything you witness on screen. When the immersive direction and the inspiring music come together to show the collective team becoming the representatives of the state of California, it’s an impressive thing to behold.
Zero Gravity is also a triumph because it doesn’t merely support Zero Robotics and their strides towards inclusivity from the sidelines-- rather, it celebrates it wholeheartedly. Advik and Carol are Indian-American and Mexican-American, respectively, and never is their background presented as something that serves as a barrier to their future success in any way. Be it in the supportive atmosphere the young adults have at home, Verrette’s nuanced direction, or the diverse community of Zero Robotics, it’s evident that the next generation of STEM students will be a melting pot of talented individuals from various cultures.
The Zero Robotics programming and robotics challenge continues to remain an incredible opportunity for students at the middle and high school levels to learn invaluable skills and work in a collaborative and welcoming environment. Because of the unconditional support and guidance of passionate instructors such as Tanner Marcoida and the work of documentary filmmakers such as Thomas Verrette, a new generation of young scholars and aspiring STEM students will have the confidence to immerse themselves in the awe-inspiring field of space research.
At the age of eleven years old, the students of Campbell Middle School in San Jose, California were able to touch the horizons of space with their code. We can only imagine where their exciting futures will take them. One thing is for sure -- space exploration is only the beginning for them!
Zero Gravity New Jersey Film Festival Show date: Friday, September 24, 2021.
More Info and Tickets are available here.
The Fall 2021 New Jersey Film Festival -- which will be taking place on the Fridays and Sundays between September 10 and October 10 -- will be a hybrid one this Fall as we will be presenting the Festival online as well as doing live screenings at Rutgers University. All the films will be available virtually via Video on Demand for 24 hours on their show date. Each ticket or Festival Pass purchased is good for the live and virtual screenings. The live screenings will be held in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ beginning at 7PM for each program on their show date. Ticket buyers will also have special access to Filmmaker Introductions and Q+A Sessions for many of the films. Tickets: $15=Per Program; Festival All Access Pass=$100.
To buy tickets go here.