‘Let There Be Light’ Review: Big, Bright and Beautiful

eric lerner in let there be light


Let There Be Light is an elegant reminder of a distasteful truth: we are yeast. We are continually multiplying while hungrily eating up all the available resources until eventually dying in our own excrement, as physicist Mark Henderson expresses in a grisly metaphor. Thanks to a steady diet of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, our history – and our future, should nothing change – is marked by pollution, waste and detrimental planetary change.

Let There Be Light, directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and co-directed by Van Royko – also the cinematographer – is a seamless interaction of visuals, animation, storytelling and physics. Tracing fusion technology’s development over the decades and exploring current projects like the Tokamak and the Stellarator, this documentary is not a condemnation, but an inspiring and honest exploration of what could be the energy of the future – renewable, cheap and clean.

Millions of light years away, fusion is carried out by our sun. Fusion occurs when two atoms are combined at exceedingly fast speeds (which for atoms means extremely high heat) to produce one atom, creating energy through expelled mass. In comparison, the similarly named fission – think the atomic bomb – is the splitting of an atom.

Fusion is a difficult, expensive and decades-long problem that has, despite many brilliant minds, not yet been solved. Let There Be Light explores several different projects in various states of research, design and development; one conducted in a rented space, another costing more than $12 billion. Though the subject matter reaches for the stars and the documentary maintains a lofty, hopeful attitude, Aung-Thwin and Royko ground the documentary by not glossing over failures or the uncertainty of success.

Despite billions in funding and multiple attempts over the decades, fusion remains an illusive dream. And the Tokamak (the $12 billion project) may yet turn out to be the most expensive scientific failure ever. Aung-Thwin and Royko address failure but they don’t linger, refusing to allow the dream to be dismissed. As the Director-General of the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER), Bernard Bigot, believes: A technology promising thousands of years of renewable energy is worth waiting another 20 years for.

While the material could have been a dense landscape of practical and theoretical physics, Let There Be Light was skillfully and artfully done. Aung-Thwin and Royko maintain a clear vision and direction, avoiding a mind-numbing parade of jargon, turning construction sites into soaring cathedrals and magnets into modern sculptures. It is a remarkable and beautiful documentary for dreamers, made by dreamers, featuring dreamers. The overwhelming theme of hope and the grandeur of the dream is contagious.

With original music by Trevor Anderson and an attention to detail in every frame that lends to the overall aesthetic appeal, Aung-Thwin and Royko have made a stylish and uplifting documentary as pleasant for the eye as it is invigorating for the mind.

Unfortunately for us, Let There Be Light can tell us everything we want to know about fusion, but it can’t predict the future. We are left to wait. Will we manage to make an artificial sun and bathe the world in light or will we remain in the dark with only our fossil fuels to comfort us?

Rating: 9.5/10

Let There Be Light opens in Montreal on September 15 at Cinéma du Parc and in Toronto on September 22 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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