The Australian Reviews 'Uranium a hit'

Uranium documentary a hit with Derek Muller 

Review by Graeme Blundell The Australian, 8 August 2015 

Derek Muller brings a quality of rare intelligence to Uranium — Twisting the Dragon's Tail.

Filmmaker Sonya Pemberton likes to think of herself as “a translator of science”, drilling down into seemingly impenetrable ideas and research and finding entertaining ways to make them accessible. And she has been doing this, courageously and rather elegantly, when there’s so much denialism, scepticism, fear and trepidation about scientific ideas.

There was Catching Cancer in 2009, a film about the way thought-provoking science has begun to unravel the factors that rig the lethal odds of the cancer lottery. She won an Emmy in 2012 for Decoding Immortality, which explained the work of Nobel prize-winning Australian scientist Elizabeth Blackburn on the so-called ­immortalising enzyme, which is being used to measure and in some cases slow down our molecular clock. Then in 2013 there was Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines,exploring the reasons for complacency and the fear of vaccination, a startling, moving, layered and surprising film.

So we need artists such as Pemberton when the cultural authority of science is continually destabilised by its own scepticism, undermining its credibility and ability to influence public debate. She’s a filmmaker who subtly straddles the categories of art and journalism, entertainment and knowledge, with her game-changing documentary features.

Now, in a confounding three-part series to mark the 70th anniversary of the most profound change in the history of human enterprise on Earth, when a mushroom cloud of radioactive vapour ushered in the atomic age, she brings us Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail. Billed as an epic journey through nine countries and more than a century of stories, it’s a quest for the truth of the most desirable and the most hated rock on earth, one that crackles with the energy of an exploding star.

Directed by accomplished documentarian Wain Fimeri (Revealing Gallipoli) and photographed by his sometime collaborator, veteran Jaems Grant, with his poet’s eye for painterly image, we’re given a sense of “being there”, a kind of contingent, hypothetical re-­enactment of events.

They create a ripping adventure narrative brought to life by an exciting new personality in TV science: Australian-born, Canadian-reared Derek Muller, creator of the hit YouTube ­channel Veritasium, which, rather spectacularly, has more than 2.5 million subscribers and 140 million viewers. What they go for and achieve effortlessly is the classical “edge of the seat” feeling of a supernatural thriller. Muller is like a knight errant investigator keeping us in an almost constant state of anticipation on his quest to find out the truth about the magical rock. (Dale Cornelius’s original music, inexorably majestic and awesomely tragic, drives the mission, the vocals of Laurie Ann Haus counterpointing the scenes of Hiroshima destruction, desperately moving.)

And along the way in his entertaining quippy fashion, authoritative but just a bit flirtatious too, Muller skirts around the underlying mysteries in fields such as space, biology, geology, medicine, physics, technology, history and the human mind.

Like the rock itself, Muller is also a shapeshifter, a hyperkinetic package of energy moving complex scenes forward with assurance, explaining succinctly complex notions, telling us a prodigious amount with the sparest of means. He fills the screen with his dauntlessness and a quality of rare intelligence — a physicist’s understanding of science combined with a historian’s passion for a telling detail — explicating the most complex notions with a kind of luminous assurance. (He also just ­happens to look like a young Hollywood film star, a handsome amalgam of Don Quixote and Lochinvar perhaps.)

He rarely stops moving as he travels across Australia, the Czech Republic, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, New Mexico, Chernobyl and Fukushima. His journey incorporates the ancient dreamtime of Australia’s indigenous people, HG Wells, nuclear physics, Adolf Hitler, and the dark, magical acts of the ancient ­alchemists.

He walks around cities, in and out of crowds, never missing a word; rides bicycles across small, mean towns; willingly takes radioactive baths; clambers over the slag heaps of ancient European silver mines, a leather bag slung across his shoulder containing his trusty yellow Geiger counter, a Radeye B320 in fact, constantly pulled into shot to test the radiation. He performs experiments on the run and sometimes demonstrates something like an illusionist’s tricks with coloured balls to illustrate the complexities of atoms and molecular structures.

Fimeri’s trick is to insert this presenter into the life and times of the subject, placing him in the still existing habitat: the museums and studios of the great physicists such as Marie Curie, who gave us hope that uranium would be a miracle panacea, and Albert Einstein, who signed a letter to then US president Franklin Roosevelt urging the atomic bomb be built.

The series poses profound questions concerning the nature of good and evil, the greater good, our profound fear of nuclear annihilation, of reactors exploding into mushroom clouds, the proliferation of science fiction-like new weapons, and whether we will ever be able to find the ability to balance the dream of limitless clean power with the nightmare of a silent poisoned Earth. And lurking behind all our hero’s frantic activity those perplexing thoughts: Where are we in the universe? What is our destiny and that of our planet?

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