Ad Astra (2019)

2020 #10
James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Ad Astra

This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

Moon pirates!

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

4 out of 5

Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

* I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #3

Francis Ford Coppola presents an all new version of his groundbreaking masterpiece.

Original Title: Apocalypse Now (obviously)

Country: USA
Language: English, French & Vietnamese
Runtime: 202 minutes (theatrical/DVD) | 196 minutes (Blu-ray)*
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

* This appears to be due to the Blu-ray removing the end credits, but the number of disc reviewers who haven’t even noticed the discrepancy is remarkable.

Original Release: 15th August 1979 (USA)
UK Release: 19th December 1979
Redux Release: 11th May 2001 (Cannes) | 23rd November 2001 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Martin Sheen (Badlands, The Departed)
Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather)
Robert Duvall (THX 1138, The Godfather)
Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Speed)

Director
Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation)

Screenwriters
Francis Ford Coppola (Patton, The Godfather Part II)
John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn)

Based on
Heart of Darkness (loosely), a novella by Joseph Conrad.

The Story
In the middle of the Vietnam war, burnt out soldier Captain Willard is given a top-secret mission: locate US Army Colonel Kurtz, who’s gone renegade and is leading his own personal army in unauthorised attacks, and terminate his command. Travelling up the river on a Navy patrol boat, its crew unaware of Willard’s goal, they see snapshots of the war and the elements of human nature it exposes — the very horrors that drove Kurtz insane…

Our Hero
Martin Sheen is Captain Benjamin Willard — not exactly a hero, but certainly the narrator. Already mentally wracked by his experiences in Vietnam, he may not be the best person to send after another officer similarly mentally afflicted…

Our Villain
Marlon Brando — top billed, only on screen for minutes, and a nightmare to work with… but another performance for the ages as the rambling, insane, but insightful, Colonel Kurtz.

Best Supporting Character
A Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination rewarded Robert Duvall for his turn as the commander of a helicopter unit, Lt. Col. Kilgore. More than that, though, was true immortality in the form of the movie’s most famous quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Memorable Quote
Colonel Lucas: “When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.”
Willard: “Terminate the Colonel?”
General Corman: “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”
Civilian: “Terminate, with extreme prejudice.”

Memorable Scene
The sound of unseen helicopters circle. The Doors playing. A pretty forest… which explodes into flame, under the barrage of a napalm attack. One of the most iconic opening scenes.

Technical Wizardry
Apocalypse Now was one of the films that pioneered the creation of surround sound, now the industry standard. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in that opening scene, with the helicopters circling the room.

Making of
“My movie is not about Vietnam, my movie is Vietnam.” Apocalypse Now was a notoriously troubled shoot, for all kinds of reasons, from an uncooperative Brando, to Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to the cast and crew’s copious drug use… Originally scheduled to shoot for six weeks, it ended up filming for 16 months, and took nearly three years to edit.

Awards
The original version won 2 Oscars and 2 BAFTAs, and was nominated for 6 more Oscars and 7 more BAFTAs. In 2002, the Redux was nominated for 7 World Stunt Awards.

What the Critics Said
“this might be the most audience-friendly art-house film ever made, and that’s where the sheer majesty of Coppola’s daredevil balancing act comes into true focus. Coppola’s art is stripped of pretension; what lies on screen may as well be Coppola’s — and probably several other peoples’ — heart, laid bare for all to see, somehow expressed through arguably the most populist of all mediums. It may be messy, but it’s also vivaciously alive.” — Rob Humanick, Slant

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“The most critically acclaimed movie of 2001 was made 22 years ago… The new material isn’t entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive… But Redux’s virtues far outweigh its flaws. Apocalypse Now in any version remains one of the richest, most extravagant moviegoing experiences of my life.” — Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer

Verdict

The first (and, indeed, last) time I watched Apocalypse Now was shortly after the Redux version had been released, when Francis Ford Coppola was busy proclaiming it was the only version that would be made available ever again. That didn’t last, of course. Adding some 49 minutes of footage to the praised theatrical version, Redux divides viewers and critics on whether the extensions make a classic even better or just dilute it. If there’s a consensus, it’s that in either version this is a great movie. I’ve never got round to the original cut to compare for myself, so it’s the longer one that makes my list. My favourite quote about it comes from Danny Boyle: “It’s imperfect; which every film should be.”

#4 will be… the 13th.

What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.