Look across the world and there are still more wanderers and explorers of the extreme and inexplicable: photographer Rachel Sussman takes pictures of the oldest surviving organisms in the world like a half million year old Siberian actinobacteria; a group of theoretical physicists live in a city-sized machine underground seeking to literally create matter out of almost nothing; a blind endurance runner who’s trained his whole life to run through Death Valley tries not to die while running through one of the most inhospitable places in the world.
All of these stories weave together in Steve Elkins’ stunning documentary Echoes of the Invisible. What do they have in common? They all focus on humans desperately pushing against the boundaries of what can be known about ourselves, our universe, and our places within in. It’s a document of feeble mankind forcing itself to the brink of extremes and finding beauty, peace, solitude, and perhaps even salvation.
Watching it, one is reminded of the outsider eccentrics populating the documentaries of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and the experimental films of Godfrey Reggio. But whereas Herzog and Morris are largely content with letting their bizarre subjects exist within their own cloistered environments, Elkins seeks to connect all these disparate stories into a singular saga of human struggle and endeavor—and incredibly, he succeeds. And whereas Reggio’s films are largely stoic aesthetic tone poems about alienation and societal decay, Elkins favors bold, immediate emotions intended to sooth, comfort, and inspire.
It’s easy to imagine the crowd that turns their noses up at the hopeful cheesiness of Spielberg or the self-absorbed spiritualism of Malick finding this film hopelessly pretentious. Laughable, even. But this film is a prayer, and prayers require the resignation and surrender of the self to something greater.
Go, seek this film, and surrender. Be healed. Amen.