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Space exploration offers humans the chance to survive as a species.
That's the unifying message offered by Michael Barnett's "The Mars Generation," which focuses on the funny, smart teenage wannabe rocket scientists attending the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp. Along the way, the documentary offers an inspiring call to action as it details America's past and future space dreams.
The Friday night screening marked the Salt Lake City opening of the Sundance Film Festival. The "Mars Generation" premiere on Inauguration Day seemed significant, the director said, because he hopes it will jump-start a conversation about space exploration.
"Now is not the time to become nearsighted about the big idea of becoming interplanetary," Barnett said. "This film is about the generation who is going to take us to Mars if they are empowered to do so."
When Barnett received unprecedented access to film at the Huntsville, Ala., camp in summer 2015, he planned to make a short, journalistic film. "Within 48 hours, these kids redefined what I thought I knew about space," the director said.
Barnett pointed out the 14 Space Camp graduates in the audience at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, in a theater also filled with state and local officials, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Before the screening, the teens were the stars on the Sundance red carpet, clustering for selfies and group shots and joking with filmmakers, publicists and photographers.
Alyssa Carson, 15, of Baton Rouge, La., wore her blue space jumpsuit, which was decorated with patches from various science programs. Alyssa said she has aspired to be an astronaut since she was 3, inspired by the TV cartoon "The Backyardigans."
In the idealistic spirit of the film, executive producer Alexandra Johnes posed with her 7-week-old, Quinn, who was dressed in his own white spacesuit.
At the screening, Cox welcomed the crowd, saying he and Gov. Gary Herbert had flipped a coin to see who would be welcoming the Sundance crowd and who would be attending President Donald Trump's inauguration. "He lost," Cox said, to laughter.
Art for art's sake should be enough on its own, Cox said, but the art of Sundance films also adds to the state's coffers, to the tune of $400 million. That includes creating 7,000 jobs and adding more than $30 million in state and local tax revenue.
And while Utah sells itself, the film festival also generates an estimated $65 million in publicity, Cox said.
The documentary, which is screening in the Sundance Kids program, is something of an unusual pick for the Salt Lake kickoff, which in recent years has highlighted films with Utah ties.
In 2015, Salt Lake crowds watched the premiere of director Ken Kwapis' "A Walk in the Woods," which featured Robert Redford, whom Herbert labeled as "Utah's favorite adopted son." In 2014, Salt Lake politicians packed The Rose for the premiere of Greg Whiteley's "Mitt," an intimate political documentary about another adopted Utah son, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"The Mars Generation" features interviews with writers, astronauts, NASA engineers and other experts, such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, along with watching Space Camp kids perform science experiments, such as launching "eggronaunts" in rockets.
"The perpetuation of the survival of the human species I think that alone is a good reason to go to Mars," Barnett says. "If we stay here long enough, we will use up all the resources, or we'll start a nuclear war, or we'll have a plague. We know this is our DNA, which is why we've always explored."
One pointed news clip in the documentary captures a question about the space program asked of then-presidential candidate Trump, who responds that he's focusing on fixing infrastructure. Or, as a science writer for The New York Times tells it: Trump is focused on fixing the potholes on Earth first.
"However you feel about Trump, I put him in there for one purpose," Barnett said. "NASA is just a whim of government. The White House controls NASA."
"The Mars Generation" outlines recent innovations by private companies such as SpaceX, led by inventor and space entrepreneur Elon Musk. The company recently revolutionized the space industry by successfully building relaunchable rockets, and it aims to build the first "interplanetary railroad."
Human history will only be recorded on a single hard drive if we remain on Earth, Barnett said, borrowing a metaphor from Musk. Establishing colonies on other planets, such as Mars, offers an opportunity to back it up the story of human civilization.
"We're at the precipice of a lot of people getting into the space business," Barnett said. "It's potentially the most exciting time since the Apollo era, since 1972. I hope our film in a small way can be a united force. We can all get behind space, we can all get behind science. If you love money, if you love surviving, if you love adventure space is great."
The Kids programming, curated through a partnership between Sundance and the Salt Lake Film Center, will spotlight three films. Here's a snapshot of the slate from Patrick Hubley, programming director of the Utah Film Center who curates the program:
"The Mars Generation" • "It's a really engaging documentary" as it offers a historic and futuristic look at space exploration. (Recommended for 10 and up.) Screens Saturday, Jan. 21, noon, Salt Lake Library Theatre; Sunday, Jan. 22, 3:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 1 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2.
"My Life as a Zucchini" • A beautiful stop-motion film about a young orphan who makes his own family, short-listed for an Academy Award for Best Animation. "It's not a mainstream, Hollywood story. There are no princesses in it, though as with all Disney movies, a parent dies. This deals with at-risk kids who are living in an orphanage, but it does it with a really wonderful tone, and some extremely funny moments while it takes you through the whole gamut of emotions." (Recommended for ages 12 and up.) Screens Saturday, Jan. 21, 3 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre; Sunday, Jan. 22, 12:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 12:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1.
"Red Dog: True Blue" • A coming-of-age tale about fathers and sons, set in the 1960s. It's about a young boy who, after his father's death, is sent to his grandfather's ranch in the Australian outback. "The story revolves around the boy and a dog he adopts and their adventures … told in 'Princess Bride' fashion." (Recommended for ages 8 and up.) Screens Sunday, Jan. 22, 11:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City; Sunday, Jan. 22, 6 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 3:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1.