VOD Review: The Man Who Unlocked the Universe.
Amazon’s documentary about astronomer prince Ulugh Beg reaches for the stars but doesn’t deliver the heavens.
Amazon Prime snuck an exclusive into their June line-up at the last moment. As a science enthusiast, I was intrigued by the sell: the untold story of Ulugh Beg, a 15th century ruler and accomplished astronomer whose discoveries helped define astronomy before the advent of telescopes. As a warrior, prince, and man of science, it seems Ulugh Beg was a fascinating candidate for a biography. Unfortunately, The Man Who Unlocked the Universe is a labor of love that only hints at the depth of his story.
The Man Who Unlocked the Universe. (2018)
Centuries before Galileo, the man now known as Ulugh Beg scoured the heavens. The grandson of the great conqueror Tamerlane, he created one of the ancient world’s finest observatories. Amongst the architectural glory of Samarkand, Beg created star charts of such complexity that they were used around the world for generations. Unrest and the ambitions of his children led to the tragic end of Beg’s nearly 40 years of rule.
There is so much of interest in Beg’s story, it’s hard to know where to begin. I feel as if the makers of this film had a similar dilemma. The crew of Uzbekistan based filmmakers are clearly working from a place of pride and love, trying to highlight an important historical figure and time in their country’s history. To fit as much in a possible, the film uses narration, interviews, historical recreations and travelogue elements. Each of these elements is handled professionally, but they crowd each other. The main enemy of this film is time – the documentary is simply too short to accomplish its task.
…Obscured by Time.
At a scant 38 minutes with credits, the documentary is too long to be a quick primer but woefully too short as a full treatment. The presentation also doesn’t do itself any favors by what it focuses on. The inclusion of recreations of famous battles may have been intended to draw a general audience’s attention, but they wind up stealing time from the historical story. The host also chooses to restate a few relatively small details over and over while glossing items that seem more salient/interesting. Finally, the film chooses to squander its short time on some infuriating speculation instead of letting Ulugh Beg’s body of work stand for itself.
A Renaissance Cut Short.
I wish The Man Who Unlocked the Universe had more time to develop. The material is all there, it just needs room to flourish. I liked the historical reenactments, but I wound up feeling like they were in the way of the scholarship instead of accenting it. That’s mostly because of how strained for time the actual documentary parts are. A western audience is likely unaware of the Timurid dynasty, the splendor of Samarkand, and the flowering of Muslim scientific achievements in the 14th and 15th centuries. A full length documentary or series of shorter pieces about time, place, politics and influential figures would be richly rewarding. Here’s hoping The Man Who Unlocked the Universe, flawed as it is, draws enough attention to get a larger treatment for its subject.