Rocketmen: Ad Astra and Sunshine

ad astraI was going to write about Ad Astra, which I watched for a third (maybe fourth) time a few nights ago, but then I realised I’d written two posts about it before (once from its original cinema showing, and then again when I bought the film on 4K UHD) making anything I have to say this time around pretty much redundant. I do find it rather curious that the film, flawed as it is, still maintains some fascination for me. I sometimes think flawed films can be like that- you can watch it enjoying it for what it does very well, and then fall into a sort of mental trap considering what was wrong with it, how it could have turned out better, second-guessing the creative team’s choices. I wonder if those very same creative teams (chiefly the director and producer/s) end up doing the same themselves, or perhaps just walk away from it and happily never go back to it. Well, I suppose the recent example of Oliver Stone’s repeated tinkering of Alexander (four cuts so far) would indicate that some of those creatives really do find it hard to pull themselves away from nagging doubts and second thoughts. The truth of course is that in the case of my own considerations, they are seperate from the business pressures and considerations that are the harsh realities of making a film- films are rarely ever made in a vacuum, and one has to make allowances, the higher a budget climbs, regards the pressures and doubts of executives putting up all that production money. In my head there is a perfect Ad Astra film that pretty much tells the same story but does so without manic space baboons and perhaps with a more genuinely space-crazed father out on the edge of human civilization and cosmic void. 

You do take different things from films everytime you re-watch them. This time in particular I was troubled by how the film played it fast and loose with scientific accuracy while at the same time it acted like some kind of successor to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It posed as one thing but was really something else; maybe not to the extent of space fantasy’s like Star Wars but maybe closer to something like Alien or Sunshine

sunshineMentioning the latter, I re-watched that again last night. The curious thing about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is that it is also one of my wife’s favourite movies; she’s not a great fan of space movies in general but there is certainly something about Sunshine that she really enjoys, and indeed whenever we re-watch it, its usually down to her suggesting it. Not something that ever happens regards re-watching Blade Runner, I can tell you, but nobody’s perfect. But Sunshine... well its a weird film; on the one hand it is heavily indebted to Alien and often gets criticised by its nods to Event Horizon later on in its proceedings. I described Ad Astra in the past as two films vying for dominance and neither really winning out, and the same is very true of Sunshine, which makes me wonder, what is it with these space movies? They are made as if they are one thing, and then they suffer a midpoint crisis and become quite another. Maybe its a bit of the old pre-2001 sci fi b-movie thing that was going on for decades, and which has left films post-2001 stuck in this weird cosmic no-mans land of trying to be entertaining but at the same time acknowledge that Kubrick’s film changed everything. 

What makes Sunshine so successful, I think, are the characters who are so well realised by the very good cast. In that respect, its something that Alien succeeded with in a clever shorthand that Boyle mimics well, and something that 2001 ironically failed at totally. Which is not to ignore the subtext of 2001 in that the humans were deliberately less human than HAL 9000, as if the bestial man-apes of the films prologue became less and less natural and ‘human’ as they evolved into technological creatures, the tools from bones becoming the spaceships of their space odyssey but their lives soulless and bland. That’s an intellectual argument that only Kubrick could get away with, but it does alienate many viewers. Films need empathy, some connection between the viewer and the characters depicted, in order to engage with those viewers. Something Sunshine succeeds very well at. Indeed, maybe it succeeds better than Ad Astra in telling the same story, as the Icarus II crew’s journey into space brings them in contact with a character who has been driven insane by the sheer immensity of space, the revelation of our place in space and time. Roy McBride’s journey to his father in Ad Astra is inherently the same as the Icarus II crew encountering the commander of the doomed Icarus I mission- Pinbacker’s violent and bloody rampage that threatens the second Icarus mission rather more intense and traditional, story-wise, than the encounter McBride has with his Dad, but in real terms its the same; character/s trying to save the Earth in opposition to an individual driven insane by a cosmic perspective. I suppose one could even argue both films owe a sly debt to the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, maybe.

2 thoughts on “Rocketmen: Ad Astra and Sunshine

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    I think that’s part of the charm of a flawed movie – if it has genuinely redeeming qualities, then there comes a point where the faults fall away and you can savour what’s good about it.

    I haven’t watched Ad Astra since I saw it in the cinema [I bought a cheap copy on 4K but it’ll have to wait until later this year when I replace the TV], but I’ve felt that way about most of James Gray’s films. There’s so much interesting, good stuff in The Yards and We Own The Night etc that the fact that they’re third-hand and slightly hackneyed stories takes a back seat, and you can enjoy the wonderful texture of the film-making, and the commitment of everyone involved.

    We watched Sunshine again earlier this year – it’s one of my wife’s favourite films, as well! – and it was the first time in ages I noticed how annoyingly the film deals with the unfortunate slasher section towards the end [the lens distortions and jagged cutting and audio-visual flim-flam all there to distract from the fact that basically a Deus Ex Machina Nude Freddy Kruger is chasing Rose Byrne around the ship with a knife]. I must have seen it ten times by now and there’s so much really superb stuff in there that that had all receded away quite quickly.

    I wonder if I’ll feel the same about Ad Astra? I did think the quality dipped quite drastically at the end of that one. We shall see.

    1. Re: Sunshine and our wives, I suspect the appeal might be Cillian Murphy or Chris Evans in genuine acting roles (Claire won’t admit to either) but you never know, it might just might be that its largely a thoughtful sci fi drama with a cast of really good, varied characters. And boy, isn’t that a great cast? Why can’t we Brits make more films like that film? I’ve never really minded the slip into horror at the end (even if, yes, it feels like its from some other movie) because I’m always a sucker for Space Madness in film. I love films that examine the scale of the universe and our place in it: too many films make space seem like Star Trek or the Wild West.

      There’s a great film somewhere in a guy going into space and having his psyche hammered by the sheer cold immensity of Everything… Ad Astra isn’t that film really, but it is weird how I have returned to it, a little like with Sunshine. Ad Astra does jump off a cliff at the end which is such a pity. His dad didn’t even have to be alive; he could have been dead with all the crew, having killed himself and his crew in the face of the evidence of a dead universe. That would have been enough for me; Brad could have still come back to Earth with the message that love conquers all and each other is all we have, but at least the film would have had a little more class.

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