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. ^

Life (2017)

2017 #123
Daniel Espinosa | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

Life

Aboard the ISS in the near future, a team of astronauts receives a probe returning from Mars with samples from the surface. Included among them are some living cells — the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The cells begin to quickly evolve into a living organism, thrilling the scientists… until it turns nasty and begins to attack the crew. That feels like a spoiler, but this is a sci-fi horror and that development is kind of inherent in the genre.

Playing like a cross between Gravity (a near-future thriller where space technology is almost identical to our present capabilities) and Alien (a violent alien lifeform attacks the crew of a space vessel), Life clearly aspires to be little more than a straight-up sci-fi/horror thrill ride, and on that score it’s a pretty effective piece of entertainment.

Of course, it’s not without its niggles. It could’ve nixed some of the stupid-ass dialogue, like one of the crew commenting “it’s so cold” while they’re shivering and their breathe condenses. More fundamentally, as the organism rapidly develops none of the scientists seem all that concerned by this, sticking to their initial feelings of awe and wonder. Surely there should be some worry about its potential? Perhaps the film was supposed to be saying something about humanity’s hubris when it comes to nature — that we wouldn’t worry about such a small organism, because why would we? — but I’m not convinced that’s a theme being actively invoked. Or maybe it was: comparing his movie to that other recent first contact flick, Arrival, director Daniel Espinosa notes that Denis Villeneuve’s film “is a great, beautiful, cinematic essay about philosophy. Mine is a rollercoaster with some underpinnings of philosophy.” Well, they’re under enough that you can ignore them entirely if you like. There are certainly some even bigger ideas it could’ve chosen to tackle — see the ghost of 82’s review for some interesting thoughts on that.

In space, no one can hear you rip off other movies

Still, we shouldn’t really judge a film for things it wasn’t aspiring to do. As a “rollercoaster”, this is decent entertainment. It builds to a helluvan ending too, which naturally I won’t spoil. That said, spoilers follow, because there are some interesting comments by Espinosa about the ending here. Two points jump out at me. One: the alien doesn’t kill David — why not? Espinosa says David didn’t fear it; in fact, he has a connection to it. Personally, I’d say that’s not apparent in the film at all. It would certainly make the ending more interesting if it were true, but I’m not convinced it was actually set up. Two: nowadays we’re so trained to expect sequels that we don’t consider the implications of ambiguous endings anymore (certainly not on blockbuster-sized movies, anyway). We don’t think about what it might mean, we just wait for a sequel to tell us. At best, we consider the ending in terms of “what’s the next two-hour genre-friendly story here?”, which is equally as limiting. He might well have a point there.

I have no idea if Life is getting a sequel to tell us what happens next or not. I believe the writers wanted one, but I’m not sure how well it did at the box office in the end. I’m not anxiously anticipating a follow-up, but I’d watch it. Life isn’t interesting enough to be a great movie, but it’s an entertaining thrill ride. My score is a smidge generous, but I did enjoy it overall.

4 out of 5

Life is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Apollo 13 (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #4

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th June 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd September 1995
First Seen: cinema, 1995

Stars
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan)
Bill Paxton (Tombstone, Twister)
Kevin Bacon (Footloose, The Woodsman)
Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes)
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Truman Show)

Director
Ron Howard (Willow, A Beautiful Mind)

Screenwriter
William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers)
Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within)

Based on
Lost Moon, a true-story book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger.

The Story
The third manned mission to land on the Moon launches to little public interest… but that all changes when an accident cripples the spacecraft. Not only will the three astronauts on board not be landing on the Moon, but they might not be able to make it back to Earth…

Our Hero
Everybody — from the three men who may die in space, to the spurned astronaut who locks himself in the simulator to find a solution, to the dozens of mission commanders and tech guys who work round the clock to keep the astronauts alive and bring them home.

Best Supporting Character
The whole cast are pretty great, but Ed Harris really earnt his Oscar nomination as the commander in Mission Control, Gene Kranz. (See also: memorable quote, below.)

Memorable Quote
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Memorable Scene
After surviving days in space on dwindling power, slingshotting the craft round the moon, and adjusting course last-minute to actually aim at Earth, the crippled remains of Apollo 13 enter the atmosphere. There will be three minutes of radio silence before they know if the astronauts have survived reentry. Everyone watches and waits. Silence. Three minutes is reached. Silence. Three minutes thirty seconds passes… In the command center, at the astronauts’ home, at Jay Lovell’s school, everyone waits. Four minutes passes… Goodness, it’s shamelessly manipulative filmmaking, but if your hair isn’t on end and you aren’t practically on your feet cheering with everyone else, you truly are immune.

Technical Wizardry
Gravity used a shedload of groundbreaking tech and computer graphics to simulate zero-G. 20 years earlier, Apollo 13 wasn’t so lucky, so how did they do it? In part, for real. Sets were built inside NASA’s (in)famous ‘Vomit Comet’, an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts an experience of zero-G, but only for 23 seconds at a time. With such a small window, shots to be achieved were carefully planned out, and cast and crew endured over 500 arcs in 13 days to film the necessary footage.

Truly Special Effect
The lift-off sequence, a combination of models and CGI without a single frame of stock footage, is iconic. For me, at least, the shot tracking down the side of the craft as the supports pull away is as indelible an image of an Apollo launch as any documentary footage.

Letting the Side Down
Two decades on, some of the CG effects (especially on Earth) are beginning to show their age. (The model work still looks grand, though.)

Making of
According to Ron Howard in a 20th anniversary interview, Tom Hanks was cast because they thought he was the actor the world would most want to save.

Next time…
The film was followed by 12-part HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the entire story of the US’s quest to put a man on the moon, from the creation of NASA to the end of the Apollo programme. It’s really good.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Film Editing)
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Original Score)
2 BAFTAs (Special Effects, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure Film)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“In the end, this failed mission seems like the most impressive achievement of the entire space program: a triumph not of planning but of inspired improvisation.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“filmmakers combined elements most go to the movies for — drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, and tug of the heart. After reading Lost Moon I’ve come to appreciate the William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert screenplay the more. Given the archival detail Lovell and Kluger documented, getting a good portion of it into a 140-minute movie was its own remarkable feat.” — le0pard13, It Rains… You Get Wet

Verdict

What could have been one of the US space program’s greatest tragedies turned out to be one of its greatest successes, a sensation that is conveyed by Ron Howard’s thrilling rendition of events. The film is too emotionally manipulative for some palates, but by and large it works magnificently for me. Bonus points are earnt for rejecting sycophancy in favour of depicting the people involved as human beings who endured and triumphed in extraordinary circumstances.

#5 will be… reached at 88mph.

Gravity (2013)

2014 #13
Alfonso Cuarón | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 7 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Production Design.

GravityOn its theatrical release, a commonly-cited recommendation was to see Gravity in 3D on the biggest screen possible. Obviously, I didn’t bother. Some say it isn’t as effective on a small screen in 2D. Maybe it isn’t as effective, but it’s still a damn fine film.

A near-future thriller (albeit one set in space), the destruction of a satellite sees a cloud of debris hurtling round the Earth, in the process destroying the space shuttle of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and other less-fortunate crewmembers. Using Clooney’s experimental space-jetpack, the survivors set off across the void for the nearest space station, racing against their oxygen supply to find a way home…

As many have noted, Gravity is a little light on plot. That’s a dealbreaker for some, it would seem, which I think rather misses the point. This is a survival story, predicated on two things: one, the desperate attempts of our heroine to triumph against increasingly-poor odds; and two, the spectacle of weightlessness and space. Not every movie needs a complex storyline to keep it going; not every film needs to only be about its plot. As co-writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón drives the film admirably on the aforementioned survival attempts and some swiftly-sketched character development.

The spectacle may have worked best on the big screen in 3D, but Cuarón’s talent as a director means it translates at home, too. That most of the film was created in computers means his penchant for long takes is indulged, but the impact of those is paramount: rather than fast-cut action sequences (even if the speed of cutting has been pushed to extremes in recent years, He said DON'T let goquick editing has always been a way of creating excitement in that arena), the never-ending shots serve to make you feel closer to events, right alongside Bullock, almost wishing it would stop. Plus there’s skill in being able to show us what we need to see from a single vantage point, without the easy option of being able to cut to a different angle to clarify a detail.

Left to carry much of the film solo, Bullock’s performance is strong enough, but this isn’t a deeply-drawn character. There’s something to her, and the situation she’s been put in is trial enough without the need for backstory, but is it really a performance that cries out for awards recognition? Not as much as the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, controversy has occasionally dogged Gravity — on two fronts. Firstly, that BAFTA awarded it Best British Film. Cue varying degrees of outrage and incredulity that an American-funded film about American astronauts could be considered British. The flipside to this is that Cuarón has made Britain his adopted home; and while the Big Studio may ultimately be American, the production company and producers are British. It was shot in Britain by a British crew, and the groundbreaking CGI — which even James Cameron, he of great determination and resultant innovation, said couldn’t be done — was created in Britain by British artists. Made in BritainThe most high-profile jobs — the actors, the studio — may be American, but everything else is pretty darn British. Rather than cry “that’s ridiculous! Give it to a proper British film!”, we should be keen to point out that, actually, this surprise global mega-hit wasn’t made in America, but in Britain, by all the talented filmmakers we have here. Rule Britannia, etc etc!

Secondly, there’s the genre issue. Most have labelled the film “science fiction”, primarily because it’s set in space. The hardcore SF brigade take umbrage with that, however: technically it’s set almost-now, with present-day technology. This is a story that Could Happen Today, not a distant dream of what Might Happen Tomorrow. Really, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: technically it is set in the future — that’s proven by little things like flight numbers and the existence of a finished space station that, in real life, is still being built — and makes use of technology that doesn’t actually exist (the space-jetpack I mentioned earlier), plus it depicts a massive-scale disaster that, obviously, hasn’t happened. But that’s no worse than many an earthbound thriller, which routinely use just-beyond-possible tech (look at all of Bond’s gadgets, even (at times) in the newly-grounded Craig films) and depict huge events that haven’t actually occurred (Presidential assassinations, nuclear detonations, etc). So, really, Gravity is no more sci-fi than those, except for it being set in space… which immediately categorises it as SF to your average viewer.

Space jetpackWhile I sympathise with the idea that it’s not A Science Fiction Movie, but instead A Thriller (That Happens To Be Set In Space), you can’t really deny its SF-ness. OK, if we’re classing this as SF then so too should be films like The Sum of All Fears, or most of the James Bond canon; but really that’s just an argument over technicalities — one I’ve indulged for far too long.

The point is, however you classify it, Gravity is an exciting, spectacular, technically-impressive movie; one that overcomes the alleged need for a huge screen and 3D to work even in the corner of your living room.

5 out of 5

Gravity debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4:30pm and 8pm.

It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

“Not because it is easy, but because it is hard”

The fact that man has been to the Moon is undoubtedly one of the most significant achievements of the last century. This pair of documentaries cover the journey there in different but complementary ways.

2009 #40
In the Shadow of the Moon

“The telling is dominated by the words of the actual astronauts, describing their personal experiences and feelings. Rather than following a mission-by-mission chronology it mixes all their stories together, thereby telling the tale of a journey to the Moon and exploring its surface only once.” Read more…

2009 #42
For All Mankind

“aims to recreate the feeling and experience of travelling to the moon, not the hard facts of who went when and how it was done. As such it is both beautiful and artistic, featuring stunning photography that has been sensitively edited and scored.” Read more…


Also note The Right Stuff, the fact-based drama that tells the story of the men who paved the way for the Apollo missions.

The Right Stuff (1983)

2009 #49
Philip Kaufman | 181 mins | TV | 15 / PG

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff ostensibly dramatises the story of the ‘Mercury 7’, America’s first group of astronauts, but in fact equally concerns itself with the tale of test pilot Chuck Yeager. But I’ll get to him.

I’ve recently steeped myself in dramas and documentaries relating to the US space program, from For All Mankind’s contemporary footage to In the Shadow of the Moon’s retrospective interviews, from Moonshot’s earnest docudrama account of Apollo 11 to From the Earth to the Moon’s thorough chronicling of events. But all of these have one thing in common: they cover the Apollo missions alone. Mercury came first, America’s initial attempts to put men into space before Apollo’s grand mission to the Moon.

In this context it’s nice to actually get some coverage of these earlier, vital missions, though such an in-depth knowledge of what was to follow has its problems for The Right Stuff’s narrative, just as knowing the facts always does for a historical movie. Equally, it gives the emotional resonance a helping hand — knowing Gus Grissom’s tragic fate lends the poor treatment he received following his unfortunate splashdown an extra poignancy; or when Alan Shepard asserts he’s going to the Moon you know he’ll make it (eventually).

Exposure to other such works makes quality comparisons inevitable too, though the only one of serious relevance here is From the Earth to the Moon. It’s an unfair one, of course: despite The Right Stuff’s epic running time, it’s nothing to the twelve hours afforded to an HBO miniseries. Conversely, where the miniseries is effectively twelve one-hour plays, shifting focus every episode, director Philip Kaufman’s film does follow a more linear — albeit wide-reaching — progression. While Yeager may disappear for long stretches, for example, his story is revisited and continued; while Gordon Cooper isn’t introduced until after we’ve had plenty of Yeager, the film closes on his first spaceflight. Flitting from character to character could make the film feel fragmented — and the brevity in dealing with many of the supporting characters, especially the wives, does suggest this — but the missions move ever on and take the narrative with them.

The other effect of having seen so much about the space program of late is that the trips to space lose some of their wonder. The handful of spaceflights actually depicted here are often praised, both for their special effects and their pure effect on the viewer, but having seen many others recently does tarnish the sense of wonder somewhat. The effects work is faultless however, as is the integration of footage of the real missions, and the unique qualities of John Glenn’s flight make it stand out regardless of how many other real spaceflights one’s seen recreated on screen.

A handful of these sequences aside, Kaufman leaves the technical aspect of proceedings alone. The various test flights and rocket launches we do see are undoubtedly important set pieces, but they’re not a thorough catalogue of events. Attention is only lavished on the scientific and engineering challenges when it has some direct impact on the characters, and just as often Kaufman is concerned with the family — specifically, the wife — behind the astronaut. These touches of family drama are well played, most affectingly with Glenn and his shy, stuttering wife, but each astronaut’s tale comes and goes, not even one relationship going through an arc that lasts more than two or three scenes. Even when powerfully portrayed, these are portraits not stories.

There are some injections of humour and symbolism too, but again in keeping with the piecemeal style. A pair of NASA recruitment officers, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, provide some comic relief early on for quite a sustained stretch, but then more or less disappear — excepting a recurring motif of Goldblum telling a room of Important Men news they already know. Similarly, the film opens with a fantastic image of Death, a black-clad preacher arriving to inform a wife and child of their husband/father’s fiery death. He crops up again, demonstrating his presence as symbol and not character, but is too often forgotten about. Plaudits are due for not overusing him, naturally, but a few more appearances wouldn’t have gone amiss.

And so what of Yeager? Why so much of a test pilot who was denied the chance to apply to be an astronaut, even if he’d wanted to? It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of screenwriter William Goldman, who left the project over disagreements with the director: it seems Kaufman, for whatever reason, is set in a belief that Yeager had ‘the right stuff’ pumping through his veins, while those chosen to be astronauts were just ordinary guys who got lucky; that Yeager was a pilot proper, brave and skilled, while the Mercury 7 were little more than living computers to perform a handful of tasks atop a huge rocket. If this is Kaufman’s belief it isn’t overbearing, but you can see where Goldman’s coming from. After all, if this is purely the story of the Mercury 7 and their trips into space, why is Yeager there at all, never mind so prominently?

By eschewing a straight trotting out of facts and incidents, even a dramatised one, for a selection of events and experiences, Kaufman made a film that is perhaps less about the real-life story and more thematic — that theme being, primarily, heroism. If he winds up uncertain whether or not the Mercury 7 were heroes, perhaps that’s the point: these were just ordinary men, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Except Yeager, of course, who is never anything less than the flawless embodiment of the titular virtue.

4 out of 5

The Right Stuff is on ITV4 tonight at 10:35pm.