Early on in the documentary 14 Minutes from Earth, one of Alan Eustace’s colleagues describes him as having “Google values,” i.e. “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” This seems fair enough, as the documentary follows the 57-year Google exec on his quest to go further into space than any human has ever gone without a rocket’s assistance, and then free-fall back down. It’s the kind of experience that’s harrowing to consider, let alone watch, but that adjective only applies to a fraction of the documentary, which feels more like an extended episode of Mythbusters than anything else.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that a why is never properly established. There’s the desire to do something that’s never been done before, sure, but there’s no other motivation that’s ever made clear. This is unfortunately only underlined by the talking heads that move the documentary along; while most of them explain the process behind designing a custom space suit and then getting that up into the stratosphere, the single exception — Alan’s wife, Kathy, who is obviously (and understandably) not happy with the whole thing — reminds us that we haven’t seen Alan give any good reason for why he’s doing something so life-endangering for such a seemingly small dividend.
To wit, there’s something morbid about the most exciting parts of the documentary, which boil down to hoping Alan doesn’t die. You know he won’t — or at least assume he won’t — but it’s no less insane watching his jumps. It’s just that what’s around them doesn’t hold up. The tone of the narration is overly melodramatic and the sense of the passing of time is nearly nonexistent. The only thing that makes the rest of it worth watching is how earnest Alan’s team is. (Ironically, they seem much more aware of the risks that Alan’s taking than Alan himself.)
In the end, 14 Minutes from Earth is diverting, but not much more than that. The lack of a driving motivator ultimately cripples it, turning it into what feels more like a science TV special than a documentary. Still, the sight of a man being propelled into space by a giant balloon or falling along with Alan from heights that seem impossible are breaths of fresh air, if only to remind us that there are still parts of the world left to be explored.