Documentary filmmakers have a fascinating responsibility to shed light on particular subjects that a typical movie-going audience wouldn’t necessarily be privy to. Through the use of cameras, light, a couple of microphones and a good sense of storytelling, they can capture something truly special and compelling on any subject that works outside of the “traditional entertainment” narrative. Topics like science, for instance. And honestly, if someone can capture an audience with complex scientific topics, they’ve accomplished a feat worthy of celebration. The broader topic of science has a tricky way of either eliciting a roomful of labored groans or an eye roll that could topple Anderson Cooper that can just shrug off any attempt at a thoughtful conversation. But if there’s some really compelling imagery and an interesting story behind it all, the magic of filmmaking has the potential stifle the loudest groan or lock the roll-iest of eyes.
Luckily, in a day and age where literally everything is accessible with the touch of a finger, Netflix has made these kind of pursuits easy to find. We’ve taken to Netflix to find these documentaries and format them in a list, to help make your search for knowledge, enlightenment or just plain entertainment much easier. Here, we have everything from musings on the current connective structure of our world and trips to space, to literally watching ice caps melt and volcano diving with a German madman. So, there’s literally something for everyone.
1. Print the Legend (2014)
3-D printers are one of the newer technological crazes, and Print the Legend documents the rush to the top of the food chain among several different companies. It’s an interesting look at a new technology that gains a visceral edge as competition rises and the business changes people. While it’s mostly an informational film about the rise of a tech company and the rise of the 3-D printer, Print the Legend formulates a conflict with the potential to misuse 3-D printers and print weaponry.
2. The Mars Generation (2017)
Will we ever put people on Mars? The kids featured in The Mars Generation certainly hope so. Coupled with a generous amount of historical space exploration footage (some of which is fairly heavy), this film concurrently follows a group of teenagers at Space Camp and the science community’s general desire to go to Mars, highlighting a younger generation of aspiring astronauts who just want a chance to get off the Earth.
3. Into the Inferno (2016)
Werner Herzog, the madman German filmmaker, takes on an interesting subject matter and explores the great power and ferocity of volcanoes across the world. What’s surprising (but really, shouldn’t be) is the strangely poignant look at how volcanoes have affected cultures across the world as he visits different locales like Indonesia, Africa and North Korea. The differing shots of each volcano he visits, complete with a couple of great eruption shots, are incredibly, dreadfully beautiful as the audience gets an up close and personal look at the hot, bubbling “red sea” that threatens to wipe all of humanity off the map.
4. Chasing Ice (2012)
National Geographic photographer James Balog claims that he was once a climate change skeptic, saying “I didn’t think that humans were capable of changing the basic physics and chemistry of this entire, huge planet.” He undertakes the huge task of putting cameras in several different spots across the world to document the living proof that we are losing glaciers at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. Chasing Ice does an excellent job of showing how far gone the glaciers really are.
5. Particle Fever (2013)
As physicists from around the world gather to witness the Large Hadron Collider, one might feel a sense of urgency in this documentary. The truth is that these scientists are on the verge of the greatest scientific undertaking in history, which, simply put, is an attempt to recreate The Big Bang. It’s a fascinating study of conflicting scientific theories and the people who put everything on the line for what they believe in.
6. The Last Man on the Moon (2014)
An unflinchingly honest portrayal of an American hero, astronaut Gene Cernan recounts his time in space and the emotional tolls it took on his family. It’s a gripping documentary, and when Cernan is first floating in space is a massively intense moment. The stock footage really comes alive, as it not only paints a picture of 1960s America, but it also shows a nation united in the quest for knowledge and space exploration which is a huge nostalgia trip.
7. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016)
Reveries, here meaning daydreams, is the perfect subtitle for this film. Told through a series of tenuously related vignettes about the creation and consequences of this constant connectedness, Werner Herzog is here to lament and rejoice in equal parts over the many great advantages and consequences of the Internet. He approaches the subject with an overwhelmingly earnest desire for knowledge, and even applies some of that apocalyptic Herzog-ian worldview that we all know and love.
Pete Mercer writes for Paste and watches way too many movies. Like way too many. Find him on Twitter to tell him how to better use his time.