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

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Searching for Momentum in The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z

Writer/director James Gray’s latest cinematic tome, The Lost City of Z (based on David Grann’s bestselling book about the incredible true story) unfolds like a long…very long…novel. It’s a curious think-piece about a man’s obsession with finding a lost civilization in the Amazonian rain forest that despite being handsomely mounted (among many other cinematic accomplishments) lacks momentum due to a decidedly old-fashioned pace. Yet, there is so much to admire here.

Witness the classical cinematography by Darius Khondji, exquisitely lit and painterly to highlight the sumptuous locales and pristine production design. Individually there are some amazing sequences staged by Gray and Khondji, including the film’s opening elk hunt done up in a thrilling manner that one wishes would’ve punctuated later moments in the epic narrative. While overall the film could’ve used some judicious editing (and script tightening), a series of amazing dissolves and scene transitions (witness liquor poured onto the uneven floorboard of a ship transition into steam from a train cutting across the Bolivian countryside…or wind through the Amazonian jungle transition to a seaside breeze in England fluttering white curtains inward over the desk of a wife reading her husband’s letters) create indelible moments one wishes to savor like a top shelf whiskey. Continue reading