The Banality of Space Exploration and Human Folly in #AdAstra

In Ad Astra, lonely astronaut Roy McBride is married to his physically and psychologically draining job, which predicatably ends his marriage, and has followed in the footsteps of dear old dad, who decades earlier headed up the infamous Lima Mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestial life. The mission was assumed lost, until some crazy anti-matter flares make their way to Earth with disasterous results from – you guessed it – out Neptune way. Oh yeah, and old daddy may be the one who created this mess. So, of course, sonny boy has to go out there to see what the heck is going on, save the solar system, and wrestle with his deep-seeded father issues.

Despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stunning and sometimes vertigo inducing celestial cinematography and a few good stand alone sequences, James Gray’s emotionally drab and tired father-and-son / man-is-a-lonely-beast space opera is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent memory.

Everyone in the film looks exhausted (Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler…even the normaly bright-eyed Ruth Negga) and it’s no surprise given the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted and the shocking banality of space travel and colonization on display. In James Gray’s near-future universe, human beings just keep getting caught up in the same old mistakes, trite archetypes, and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, look, an Applebees and Subway on the lunar colony. And pirates fighting over mines. Mars is just one giant underground bunker that looks like it was designed with cardboard packing material from Amazon.com. Out in the middle of nowhere near some random asteroid, humans are experimenting on primates, who go maliciously bonkers in an oddly thrilling sequence that plays like a revival of an abandonded sequence from Gray’s last curiosity about human exploration, The Lost City of Z. Why were we messing with primates in space? Well, it’s just because, you know, animal torture is what humans always do. And hell, it is boring as hell out there, so why not?

One of the most irritating elements of the film is Brad Pitt’s near constant, and woefully undercooked voice-over that is strung together from routine psychological check-ups and philosophy 101 inner monologue. The Tree of Life this is not. Underscoring the voice-over and anti-action are Max Richter’s minimalist tones, pale echoes of Hans Zimmer and Justin Hurwitz’s work from the superior in every way First Man. The aformentioned cinematography of Van Hoytema is technically stunning and beautiful to look at it, but it’s not married to anything of deep substance. Interstellar this is also not.

I don’t blame Gray for tapping into classic thematic tropes. Some of the best stories of all-time deal with father-and-son drama and the loneliness of human existence, but if you are going down that well tread path you need to have either something new to say or do it in an interesting way. Sadly, in his attempt to hang these tropes inside his musings on the empitness of space, Gray shows how tired and empty these ideas can sometimes be.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Nevertheless They Persisted at Dunkirk

The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.

Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”

The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air. Continue reading

Inspecting Spectre

Spectre Daniel Craig

Is it just me or does Daniel Craig, with each passing Bond film, look more and more like the William Shatner mask worn by Michael Myers in Halloween?  For me, the biggest problem with the Craig Bond Era has been Craig…he showed a promising range initially but was never quite right for the role.  But I digress.  He does fine here (I guess) in his fourth outing.  So apart from Craig saddled with being Craig and a snooze-inducing Sam Smith Bond theme (man, what a step down from Adele who knocked it out of the park with Skyfall!), let’s inspect all the good stuff in Spectre…because, boy, there’s a lot of it. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

Continue reading

The Cathedral of Space and Brand Survival in Interstellar

Interstellar 3

Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood.  You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it.  He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.

His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception.  It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions

In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl.  There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.”  It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier.  The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).

But strange things start happening.  Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up.  There are gravitational anomalies happening.  And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message.  It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Continue reading