With all due respect to David Blaine, his latest stunt sounded boring on paper. He would fly into the air while holding onto a few balloons, then safely parachute back to Earth ... and that’s exactly what happened. But after watching the entire affair streamed live on YouTube, I have to admit: David Blaine made “real-life Up” into a thrill ride.
The stunt itself is called “Ascension,” and it really is as simple as it sounds. Using a bunch of specially designed helium-filled balloons attached to a harness, Blaine would float high into the sky — before he took off, estimates were putting his flight’s apex at about 18,000 feet. Once he got high enough, he’d cut himself loose and parachute to safety.
To his immense credit, Blaine — who is as good at marketing as he is at death-defying feats — knows that there’s no point in doing an unbelievable stunt if no one sees it. So he’s been promoting “Ascension” on YouTube since early August, when he released the first teaser. Next, Blaine went on what amounts to a press tour of YouTubers and influencers including Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Casey Neistat. At each stop, he explained a little more about the stunt and all the preparation and training that would go into pulling it off.
All this promotion eventually led up to Wednesday, the day he would actually ascend live on a special YouTube Originals stream. Even while watching the final moments of preparation, nothing about the prospect of the stunt felt particularly interesting. While he was standing on the ground, surrounded by a camera and his safety crew, it seemed fairly obvious that the chances of success were high.
David Blaine may do some dangerous things, but the whole point of a death-defying stunt is to defy death. Plus, there was video proof of all the prep work he had been doing — both successful and unsuccessful. In other words, the stakes felt low while all the balloons were being attached to Blaine’s custom harness.
Then he left the ground.
Once Blaine was in the air, suspended exclusively by a few comically large balloons, “Ascension” turned into the spectacle the illusionist had been promising. After just a few hundred feet, the ground started to change from the distinct airstrip he took off from to the vague terrain features most of us are used to seeing only from airplanes (or, I guess, Microsoft Flight Simulator). Once he reached an altitude of 4,500 feet, the feed switched over to a helicopter shot, and the pure ridiculousness of it all became glaringly, terrifyingly obvious.
But while the helicopter shots of him against the landscape were impressive, they couldn’t hold a candle to the shots we got from Blaine’s own point of view. His balloon rig came equipped with several cameras designed to give us an inside look at all the intricacies of his flight.
At one point, somewhere around 7,000 feet, Blaine began putting on his parachute. It started out smoothly: He put both straps over his shoulders and fastened them across his chest. Then he got to the leg straps, and missed his first attempt. For a few seconds, Blaine looked up and just sort of stared out across the landscape, nearly 8,000 feet in the air. (At that point, he was climbing at around 500 feet a minute.)
There’s no real way to know what he was thinking in that moment. He could have been calming himself down, or just drinking it in. Perhaps he wasn’t anxious at all about missing the strap, but I definitely was.
Maybe it was all just Blaine’s great performer’s instincts, because when you see a hitch in a stunt, all the horrible possibilities start to slip into your head. After all, we knew he practiced for this moment, but he’d never done this part before. He’d never floated 9,000 feet above the Earth and fumbled his first attempt at putting on the one thing that could get him back to the ground safely.
Whatever happened in that moment, it didn’t seem to matter much to Blaine. After his brief pause, he looked back down at the leg strap and fastened it on his next try. From then on, the flight progressed smoothly. Just one man, strapped to more than a dozen comically large balloons floating thousands of feet above the ground. He even had a few short and very sweet phone calls with his young daughter, who was there to watch.
As he continued to climb, Blaine pulled out an oxygen tank to help compensate for the thinner air. There was only one scary step left looming: the jump.
Many thousands of feet after he attached his parachute, somewhere just below 25,000 feet, with over 700,000 people watching live on YouTube, David Blaine detached from his balloons and began plummeting toward the ground. Technically, this was the most normal part of the whole stunt: It’s just a slightly-higher-than-normal skydive. But when he cut himself loose from the balloons, I still held my breath all the way down until his parachute finally opened.
Once it did, Blaine slowly drifted back to the ground, negotiating with his crew to find the safest spot to land in the Arizona desert before finally touching down safely.
In the end, the stunt was both exactly what I thought it would be and a whole lot more. It was, in fact, just a dude floating above the Earth using huge balloons, but it was also weirdly thrilling, and an excellent way to spend a few hours of my morning. The YouTube stream’s description says that Blaine’s intention was to bring everyone a positive distraction. He did that.
A few minutes after his safe touchdown, the stream ended with an abrupt cut to a black screen letting me know that the whole thrilling thing was filmed while following the strictest CDC and OSHA recommendations on safety, testing, and social distancing. And suddenly, I really missed the view of David Blaine, 25,000 feet in the air, attached to a bunch of big-ass balloons.