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.

Proxima (2019)

prox2Single-mother Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is a French astronaut preparing for a year-long mission aboard the ISS, and in the final weeks leading to the mission she finds that her relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) is threatening to fall apart as the child starts to resent her mother for leaving her.

Proxima naturally reminded me of the similarly-themed Lucy in the Sky, in which Natalie Portman delivered a fine performance as an astronaut returning to Earth after a Space Shuttle mission finding herself unable to resume the normal life she had left behind. Proxima flips things around somewhat, dealing with the lead-up to a space mission and the toll it takes on personal relationships, but it shares topics such as women working in what is usually accepted as a mostly male-dominated profession and the unique pressures women face having to prove themselves equal. Proxima is clearly the superior film as it defttly navigates the many arcs running through it without being overly preachy or melodramtatic. For me, if it falters at any point its when Sarah abandons her pre-flight quarantine (essentially endangering the mission and her fellow crewmembers safety) in order to have one last important night with her daughter, to finally make peace with her and the situation they are caught up in. Emotionally, it works and acts as something of a crescendo for the film, but intellectually its sets up all sorts of alarm signals, which is unfortunate, because on the whole the film is quite remarkable for being both character-driven and involving, but also authentic in how it portrays the beaurocracy and administration around an astronauts career and the physical and intellectual intensity of their training. Being an astronaut is not a normal job, leaving the Earth is not a normal event, but men and women have to navigate the normality of family life and the bizarre enormity of what they are doing in their careers. Proxima explores the pressures that are perhaps not wholly unique to a woman, but it does offer intriguing observations of what particulalrly effects a mother, and the drive that ensures a woman can succeed in her life aspirations in what might be assumed to be a male-dominated career. The film stumbles a little in places but on the whole it suceeds really surprisingly well.

Eva Green is absolutely terrific, as might be expected. She’s one of the best actresses working today, and its hard for me to think of a bad performance of hers in anything I’ve seen her in (even if her choice of roles sometimes does her few favours- 300: Rise of an Empire for one). I remember how brilliant she was in the short-lived (and rather oddly under-appreciated) series Penny Dreadful, which sets me thinking that there’s another few Blu-rays up on my shelf that I should be watching again sometime (that watchlist is endless, frankly). The chemistry between Eve and young Zélie, who plays her daughter, is really quite affecting and it absolutely lends the film some greater intensity and sense of reality. Their rapport feels natural and real and its something that can get quite overlooked sometimes: its one of those things that viewers can often take for granted but if the chemistry isn’t there, or if it feels forced, it can really undermine any drama.

I think its to be welcomed that film-makers suddenly seem interested in the human side of space travel (Proxima is wholly set on Earth with no sequences set in space other than stock footage), and films like First Man, Lucy in the Sky and this indicate that there is plenty to explore. Some TV shows have explored this too and oddly enough don’t appear to have been as successful as their film counterparts  (The First, starring Sean Penn was an interesting attempt that got cancelled after one season), wheras I would have thought an episodic format would have been a benefit. I would be fascinated to see a project with the emotonal/intellectual gravitas of First Man or Proxima combined with the scale and ambition of maybe a 2001: A Space Odyssey – well okay, thats maybe unfair, but then again, why? Why shouldn’t we be able to expect that of our current film-makers (what on Earth is James Cameron doing making sagas about blue Aliens when he should be tackling something with real importance, scale and ambition)? I suppose setting my sights more realistically, I’m thinking something with the reality of First Man or Proxima doubled with a film like The Martian or Mission to Mars: you know, get a sense of real drama and humanity in there with the hardware and spectacle. In space, you don’t need aliens or monsters to get viewers excited, the human story that got you there should be enough, and the impact of the experience on the human psyche and heart is a subject rich with possibilities. 

Last Week

                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

The Hand of Night (1968)

hand1Frederic Goode’s The Hand of Night is a particularly peculiar horror film, horrifyingly tedious, appallingly directed with utterly woeful acting, but somehow fascinating. Whilst trawling through the Talking Pictures schedules these past few months I appreciate that I’ve seen some really obscure films that I would otherwise not ever had the opportunity (or misfortune) to see, and The Hand of Night is one of the best/worst examples of this.

Its also an example of how we film fans can get caught out by movie-connections, usually attracted to films by the cast- in this case, the only reason why The Hand of Night caught my eye for recording/later viewing was William Sylvester in the starring role- Sylvester being familiar chiefly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other genre films. The fall from grace of working on a timeless classic like Kubrick’s epic to working on this dismal horror effort must have been the equivalent of leaping off a cliff, but as I’ve commented before, every gig’s a pay-cheque.

hand2So lets start with whats good about the film- well, its very odd, with a really bizarre film score attributed to someone named Joan Shakespeare which is alternatively spooky-weird or was composed for some other movie- it seems to either work incredibly well to maintain a dreamy aspect to the film or it just feels totally wrong. Clearly a product of the 1960s, it also strangely evoked the earliest film-scores of Vangelis (Sex Power, L’Apocalypse des Animaux  and Ignacio) which was really disorientating for me, a reference likely lost to anyone unfamiliar with the Greek maestro’s early work. The title sequence is quite promisingly moody. The film is full of death references- Sylvester plays Paul Carver, a bitter, haunted man who has travelled to Morocco to see a doctor (who has unfortunately died when Carver gets there). Carver is either trying to get over the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident that he somehow survived three months before, or working out how to kill himself, its not entirely clear. On the one hand he makes for an interesting protagonist, being so wracked by guilt and self-pity. He befriends Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) on his flight to Morocco- Gunther is an archaeologist whose project is a dig at a Moorish Medieval tomb, and at Gunther’s home Carver meets Gunther’s pretty young assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) who clearly takes an immediate shine to Carver. Chantal was the fiance of Gunther’s son before he died. So there’s this weird thing about Death through the film. Dead family, dead doctor, dead fiance, a tomb for a Moorish princess… Carver’s apparent death-wish stemmed from the guilt of surviving the crash that killed his family. So there is this subtext going on that made me think there was more to the film than seems on the surface, but, er, I was wrong.

Well, that’s the good, the bad about the film is pretty much everything else. The cast is pretty awful- I’m not certain if its bad casting (Underdown and Clare, struggling with bad accents, are either really bad actors or woefully ill-cast in material that doesn’t suit them), or the cast in general being hampered by really bad dialogue and direction. The budget was obviously slight, and although the location adds some exotica to the proceedings it is ruined by scenes obviously shot day for night, and editing that seems to slip day scenes into night scenes ruining even that ‘shot day for night’ material.  The ‘villainess’ of the piece, the beautiful Marissa whose tomb it is that Gunther is excavating, is more succubus than traditional vampire (no fangs on display here), and is played by Aliza Gur with no sense of threat or danger whatsoever, crippling the film. She looks beautiful and mysterious but stumbles every-time she opens her mouth to speak -clearly Gur was a model more than an actress (she was Miss Israel in 1960), or perhaps she too was hampered by that dialogue and terrible lack of direction, not that she has to do much other than lounge on a divan sexily or stand, er, mysteriously. Diane Clare, who is really, really terrible as Chantal, apparently left acting altogether after this film. Clare appeared in The Plague of the Zombies and The Haunting and lots of other films and tv series prior to The Hand of Night so she must have been a better actress than this film suggests.

William Sylvester was mostly a tv actor, so The Hand of Night was one of his few film gigs; turns out 2001: A Space Odyssey really was the oddity in his career, notable by its exception, so that shows where movie connections gets you, watching films like The Hand of Night. There’s nothing in this film that suggests that Sylvester merited a successful career in films- while he handles the haunted, guilty aspect of Carver very well, its the romantic and physical stuff here that displays his limits. He has no chemistry at all with Clare (and he’d have to be some kind of eunuch not to have some chemistry with the sultry (albeit wooden) Gur), but for most of the film he seems a duck out of water.

Not that the film could have been saved by a better lead. This film was pretty broken at the script stage and the director clearly wasn’t particularly enthused by it. Some b-movies can’t help but seem terribly cynical affairs, woefully short of any ambition. Sometimes they can be genuinely interesting and daring, but this isn’t one of them.

The Terrornauts (1967)

terror1Wow, that’s a hell of a title for a sci-fi movie, isn’t it? Alas, the film, one of the strangest sci-fi films you might ever see, is in no way equal to the title, which is a terrible shame, because for the first fifteen-twenty minutes I was loving it, all the dodgy acting and dodgy sets and dodgy visual effects of it. Sure, part of the appeal, such as it is, of watching old low-budget genre films are those cheesy models and the comical amusement regards how they tried to depict aliens. Sometimes that can be enough.

The Terrornauts was a very low-rent supporting feature from Milton Subotsky’s Amicus films, a production company much akin to Hammer and very successful at horror anthology pictures in the 1960s and 1970s which made brief forays into science fiction (note the 1960s Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing).  

A small team of British scientists are running a project titled ‘Star Talk’, which uses a Radio Telescope to listen in on the cosmos and try to pick up a signal of alien origin. Needless to say the Star Talk team -project lead Dr. Joe Burke (Simon Oates), electronics expert Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and office manager Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall)- are ridiculed by their peers, particularly Site Manager, Dr. Henry Shore (Max Adrian) who believes their fool project an unworthy waste of radio telescope time that would be beter utilised on, er, his own science research. To that end, Shore plots to close down their funding, and the barbed arguments between Burke and Shore are possibly the highlight of the whole film.  It reminded me very much of the lofty themes of the film Contact and surprisingly seemed quite serious and plausible, but the film can’t sustain this and quickly descends into farce and then, er, plunges further still. I just have to turn your attention to the image below to get what I’m talking about. Just look at that for a moment.

terror2The thing that, inevitably, really,  kept on coming to mind whilst watching The Terrornauts was that the film was released in 1967, and that 2001: A Space Odyssey followed just the following year, utterly changing everything for the genre. Watching films like The Terrornauts really lays bare just how extraordinary the achievement that 2001  was- it simply cannot be overstated. Its easy to look back on 2001 today and forget the sheer leap in quality and skill evident in the film, but watching films like Amicus’ offering makes it absolutley clear. 

Now of course there is a huge disparity of budget and ambition, of the calibre of cast and crew between films like 2001 and The Terrornauts, and any comparison is wholly unfair, and its true, in many ways 2001 changed very little. It wasn’t until Star Wars arrived in 1977 that sci-fi films really became popular in mainstream culture and deemed worthy of ambitious blockbuster budgets, as most genre offering remained low budget and lowbrow even in the wake of 2001 (one could ruefully argue that Star Wars itself is pretty lowbrow too, of course and that much of its success was purely in its execution).

terror4But The Terrornauts is pretty much below lowbrow; astonishingly so infact. As soon as I saw Patricia Hayes playing the facility tea lady Mrs. Jones  my suspicions were realised, but when Charles Hawtrey (of Carry On fame) turned up playing Joshua Yellowlees, an auditor investigating the Star Talk team’s accounts, I knew something was up as the film lurched towards the totally bizarre and then took a sharp left into space madness.

The team do indeed pick up a signal, track it down as coming from the asteroid belt infact, and after nipping to the High Street to buy suitable equipment (to which Charles Hawtrey shrieks with consternation at a piece of tech with a £75 invoice) they send a signal back. This signal reaches a huge alien installation on one of the asteroids which promptly sends a spaceship by return post which quickly reaches Earth, floats above the radio telescope installation and with some kind of tractor beam picks up the research building in which the Star Talk boffins work, along with Mrs Jones and Mr Yellowlee of course, and rushes back to the alien base. The Earthlings are then tested to see if they are intelligent enough to operate what turns out to be a deserted base maintained by a robot, and play a game of real-life Taito Space Invaders in battle against an evil Space Armada. In between all this excitement two of the team visit an alien planet inhabited by, er, green men (where Sandy is almost sacrificed to Space Gods Unknown) and the mystery of Joe’s childhood visions that set him on his career path of contacting aliens becomes plain. Eat your heart out, Jodie Foster, this guy has pathos.

The Terrornauts is one of those films that really needs to be seen to be believed, after which finds one grasping at a reappraisal of every genre film previously seen. The old adage, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ actually does have some merit here with this one. Its mad, its inept, its mind boggling, frankly. But it absolutely needs to be seen on a double-bill with 2001: A Space Odyssey, if I could only dare.

The Terrornauts currently appears on Talking Pictures schedules and is available on digital rental and DVD.

Returning to Annihilation

anni2Last night I re-watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation, this time on 4K UHD disc rather than streamed on Netflix. The film holds up very well indeed, and remains one of the very best science fiction films in recent memory. Its dark and sombre and horrifying and disturbing. The ending of course is challenging/refreshing/infuriating and I would imagine what people think of the film largely depends on how well they accept such vague and obtuse storytelling. Some of the best science fiction films (looking at you, 2001: A Space Odyssey) leave things open to interpretation and conjecture, leaving some work required from the audience.

What excites me most regards Annihilation‘s ending is that it maintains the sense of the alien, the unknowable, that permeates the entirety of the film. Throughout the film the nature of the Shimmer, its what and why escapes the characters caught up in it. In science fiction films of decades ago (or indeed not even all that long ago), a somebody, whether it be scientist or alien, would be obliged to explain everything in a long monologue to reassure viewers that they are not stupid for not understanding or fathoming it all out, but thank goodness films can be more mature now. Characters in Annihilation offer up suggestions but none of it is ever really taken for truth or final solution. There is a sense that Reality cannot be relied upon, something in the light and the air is wrong and changed and the creatures that exist in this swampish, wooded dreamscape are strange  and twisted. Time seems to pass differently, days can be lost from memory, A monster howls the last screams of one of its victims. Shapes shift under skin, plants sprout from arms, fingerprints shift into new patterns: our bodies betray us (simplest solution: its a film about cancer?). I love that this film leaves it open for me to think about, to ruminate over. There seems all sorts of possibilities and readings to consider on future viewings; I find that exciting. Lena keeps telling her interrogator “I don’t know” when questioned about what happened to her. I don’t know what happens either, but I can have fun thinking about it.

Something fell out of the sky and infected reality with something like cancer, multiplying, creating and destroying without reason, likely without concious intent.

We cannot grasp the real size of the universe or our place in it, and can never really ‘know’ what an alien would be like, or think, if it thought at all. All too often aliens are depicted in film as dudes with Californian accents and a desire for the nearest hot chick (I didn’t intend to reference the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 but I think I just did) and I much rather films go the Giger’s Alien route when they can (the biggest crime of Prometheus is trying to dispel the 1979 films bloody mystery).

So anyway, Annihilation is bloody brilliant. Absolutely loved it. This time I had the added bonus (as I have the film on disc) of being able to watch the extra features and was surprised to discover that they are pretty substantial, totalling close to 90 minutes all told and being really quite informative and not the EPK filler we usually get these days. Behind the scenes footage of some key sequences with insights from cast and crew, some of the pre-production work and as usual Garland is quite open regards how he adapted the original novel (a journey “from suburbia to psychedelia” is one of his observations) and his thoughts on the cast (shame there wasn’t a commentary track though, I suspect Garland would be a great company for a run through the film, but the lack of commentary just perpetuates the mystery I guess).

Great film, though.

Back to the Stars: Ad Astra 4K UHD

ad1Returning to Ad Astra, a few months after its cinema release back in September, was a surprisingly rewarding experience. I’m always curious about returning to films like this when their disc releases come out, and more so regards this film than some. I really had mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it, and while my reservations remain, particularly towards its ending, I have to confess I enjoyed the film much more second time around. Diminished expectations and all that.

First things first though, I have to say, this film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, indeed much, much better than it did back in the cinema. I’d possibly forgotten how beautiful the film’s cinematography was, but certainly the tired projection quality/old screens of my Cineworld (currently getting a refurb as I type this so hopefully soon rectified) can’t match sitting a few feet away from my 55″ OLED. There is a lovely filmic quality to the very detailed image, a nice amount of (but not overpowering) grain, some subtle HDR and beautiful colour range- its a great addition to the format and a reminder that sometimes its worth paying a premium. So it looks pretty. But what about the film?

Well, Brad Pitt’s subdued performance is certainly  more nuanced than I remembered, and his interior monologues via voiceover are not as distracting as I thought first time around. I do think the nods in the narrative towards Apocalypse Now are too on the nose and in practice proves an awkward fit for a science fiction film (the journey up the river in Coppola’s film isn’t a convincing analogue for a space odyssey across the solar system).  For one thing, a 79-day journey from Mars to Neptune that manages to fit in flybys of both Jupiter and Saturn seems an incredibly fortuitous piece of planetary alignment, but hey, as John Brosnan said, ‘Its only a movie’ so I should maybe cut the film a break (the less said about Space Pirates and mad Space Baboons the better).

ad2What I really like about the film, and something I wish it had focused on more, was its nihilistic approach to humanity in the universe. The void is vast and inhuman, a silent expanse that defies comprehension, and it is hinted several times during the film that the immensity of space and time can easily damage the human psyche.  Its why the characters have to submit to periodic evaluations and why one of the pilots of the Cepheus seems to suffer a breakdown during a tense emergency arriving at Mars. Its frustrating when the films logic then appears to breakdown, as that same burned-out pilot is immediately passed out for a further flight to Neptune when he really should be grounded. I found the conceit that space travel breaks people, even the smartest and fittest, if only because we really don’t ‘belong’ Out There, was a great subject and indeed a fitting enough explanation for Tommy Lee Jones going all Colonel Kurtz out at Neptune but not really developed enough.

Its frustrating because one of the things so interesting (and infuriating for some viewers) about First Man was its rather detached, cold-fish portrayal of Neil Armstrong. The voyage to the moon is all business for Armstrong in that film, and he seems to shut down emotionally throughout, but its how he seemed to deal with it. As laymen we always want to know what it felt like to stand on the surface of the moon and look back on the Earth, but sending engineers/test-pilots to the moon instead of poets means that NASA failed to really answer that question, frustrating our need to really empathise with the event, understand its magnitude. Indeed, it possibly frustrated Armstrong for the rest of his life trying to articulate it. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, what must it do to a human to look up and see the Earth, the place where anything that ever happened in all the history books, and where any man or woman who ever lived spent their lives, every place or person we ever heard of, encompassed in that small blue globe lost in the totality of the inky blackness around it?  Can the fragile psyche of a human really comprehend it without snapping or finding God (or both), or perhaps shrugging it off as an engineering achievement?

Ad Astra perhaps gets too obsessed with the intimate (cold-fish Roy McBride’s relationship with his long-lost father) instead of really sufficiently dealing with the Infinite. I liked its suggestion that we are truly alone, that there is no life Out There. His father Clifford McBride seems to break at the realisation that there is nothing for him to find, no answers, no solutions, just empty silence and dead worlds. Roy finds solace in returning to Earth and realising that what he have, through relationships with loved ones etc, should be enough: Love Conquers All I guess, but its clearly a revelation lost on Clifford, who coolly states he never once thought about the wife or child he left behind.

Well, Ad Astra is a flawed film, not as intelligent as it pretends to be or as fulfilling as it could have been. The finale of the film, when Roy finally meets his father, is the weakest part of the whole piece. As I think I mentioned with my earlier review, I actually think the film needed to be longer, that we needed more time with Clifford and Roy out at Neptune, the loneliest humans there has ever been, and how each of them deal with that in their own way. Maybe that would have been too much of an intellectual exercise for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, I don’t know, but in any case as it stands the film fails to realise both the emotional and intellectual wallop that it aims for. It seems to suggest that the answers for the human experience lie in Inner Space rather than Outer Space, that the universe is cold and lifeless and ignorant of every one of us: its not that we don’t matter, its that we need to matter to each other. Maybe that’s a stretch, or maybe its just that the film fumbles that answer.

But at least it seems to ask the question. There’s a lot of good in Ad Astra and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again. I’ll just be filling in the blanks with what I think it means and what it could have been, while considering just what a masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey really was.

Future becomes Past

esc1I am still beyond irritated that I never re-watched Blade Runner during November, 2019. It feels like something vaguely heretical that I never watched that film in that, of all months. Once upon a time, that film was of the future, now its not even of the past, but some alternate past, like the 1997 of Escape From New York, or the 2001 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alternative histories, of the future become past.

Perhaps that’s more powerful. It is, after all, the problem when predicting the future in science fiction movies. You can get judged by what you get right, what you get wrong, and maybe that’s missing the point- the films really tell us about when they were made. In the decade that gave us Taxi Driver, it wasn’t perhaps too much of a stretch to imagine New York becoming a maximum security prison to dump all the criminal filth of America into. Likewise when Kubrick and Clarke made 2001 in the 1960s, with America pumping so much money and effort into Apollo, it was no doubt easy to imagine the Superpowers with bases on the moon by 2001. In just the same way that Escape From New York shows how grim society seemed to be getting in the grim late-1970s, 2001: A Space Odyssey betrays the sense of hope and ambition of the 1960s.

In any event, its easy to re-watch 2001 imagining that Vietnam never happened and that political will championed an ambitious space program for decades to follow, or that when economic collapse threatened the America of Escape From New York,  far-right politics condemned society’s ills to the solution of a city turned into a prison. Or, in the case of Blade Runner, that perhaps the Axis won World War Two and set the world into the different path of a German Space Race, and an Off-World solution to the climate collapse of Earth.

In this way the films actually become more powerful, separated from the weight of prediction, instead benefiting from the freedom of dreaming what might have been. I think its something that film-makers etc should perhaps consider when contemplating possible futures: don’t make them ours, make them someone else’s. If the opening crawl of Blade Runner had been something along the lines of: “1946: The Axis wins WWII, 1954: The first man on the moon is a German,  2019: Now” then people would perhaps have been more open, even in 1982, to accept its future noir vision. Its an approach that Villeneuve and his team clearly seemed to relish when making BR2049 and furthering its alternate history/future, something that the film benefits from with its retro tech.

I note that perhaps the next film to join the distinguished company of Escape From New York, 2001 and Blade Runner is Soylent Green, whose grim future of 2022, of devastating climate change, pollution and overpopulation is next to become an alternate past. Mind, as predictions go they possibly weren’t terribly far off with that one.

Ad Astra

asastra1Ad Astra is really two different movies, and I liked one of them, and didn’t care much for the other. The one is a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also Contact– it  wonderfully uses cinema as a visual medium to show us the immensity of the cosmos, and our place in it. It shows us a cosmos wholly indifferent to the human race and how the very immensity of it can challenge our sanity, our sense of reason. It asks the question ‘is there life Out There?’ and suggests a possible answer, and examines what that might mean to us, our place and importance in the immensity of space and time.

The second film is about pirates on the moon and carnivorous apes running amok on deserted space stations, and boys looking for their fathers when their fathers aren’t interested.  Its a Captain Nemo In Space film about as hokey as it was in The Black Hole.

If you can sense there’s a dichotomy there then you can understand my very mixed feelings about this film. We don’t get enough serious science fiction films, and we don’t get serious money and talent invested on space sagas in which we travel into the depths of space with real-space physics and no sound depicted in space (oh God I’m so thrilled at just that alone). Films like 2001 and Interstellar and Solaris are very rare, and even the rather flawed ones like Event Horizon or Sunshine are to be applauded, just for existing.  I’m thankful we even have Ad Astra, and kudos to 20th Century Fox bankrolling it, taking a risk on it. So much about Ad Astra is perfect, so much of it is so damned exhilarating, that it just feels so incredibly frustrating too.

When I saw advance word describing the film as Apocalypse Now meets 2001, I thought it was a bit of a wheeze, maybe a shorthand way, as Internet writers and YouTube reviewers often have it, in describing its sense of a journey across the solar system. I didn’t understand that this film literally is Apocalypse Now meets 2001. I suppose to be more charitable, I should describe it as Heart of Darkness meets 2001, but director James Gray is too on the nose with a narration that is so indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic that it feels like they should have had Martin Sheen voice it. Surely they could have dropped it, or most of it. Initially its interesting but it becomes far too indulgent and distracting.

adastra3Its also far too obvious, almost as bad as the clumsy narration that Blade Runner had, its so relentlessly describing whats happening and why and what Brad Pitt’s internal thoughts are about everything around him. Coppola’s film had a narration that was perfect, but that’s such a rarity and you have to be careful going there, especially if your basic narrative is also so indebted to its source. It was so obvious, I half-expected Tommy Lee Jones to mutter “The horror! The horror!” as he stared up at the stars. It shouldn’t have been so literal, and it also backs the film into the same quandary that drove Coppola nearly mad making Apocalypse Now– when we finally reach Kurtz, whats the revelation? Whats the endpoint, the grand insight that the previous few hours of film have been leading to? If you’re building up the mystery, you have to have a suitable answer, even if its just wrapped around another question. Gray ends Ad Astra with a mind-numbing revelation akin to ‘home is where the heart is’, and almost even that hoary chestnut ‘love conquers all’ – that’s fine, but helplessly anticlimactic after all the build-up.  Perhaps Ad Astra is too measured, too collected to really warrant the comparisons to Coppola’s hallucinatory trip up the river. Perhaps it needed more product placement, a way of ramming home its suggestion of commercialisation dumbing down what space is, what it means- we can’t have Coppola’s drugs in space, but maybe more Coca Cola would serve the same purpose in showing the inanity humanity brings to the void. What on Earth, I wonder, would a Terry Gilliam-directed Ad Astra be like?

There are some wonderful moments in Ad Astra, but some damningly awkward ones too, and no matter how strange and huge the grand canvas the film shows us, its also depressingly small and human-scaled too. I suppose that may be deliberate, a message in itself, but it also suggests a lack of confidence or a reluctant nod to the mass audience that perhaps thought that what Arrival really lacked was gunfights and action. A research station sending out a mayday message is devoid of bodies/signs of crew, because the sense of ensuing mystery serves the plot, maybe, but later when Brad Pitt finds his destination, its corridors are full of cadavers floating in zero g, presumably for decades. Even a crazy man would have jettisoned the dead into space, right? I mean, air is limited and its full of putrefaction and decay? That’s beyond unhealthy, its beyond stupid.

adastra2There is an awful lot to appreciate in Ad Astra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again at home in 4K (in January next year, I guess) and possibly enjoying it more with reduced expectations. Its a remarkable achievement that it was made for something just a little north of $80 million (by all accounts) as it looks rather bigger. Some of the world-building and art direction is truly amazing, and it feels very grounded most of the time. The cast is great, and Donald Sutherland in a rather short role leaves such a real mark on the film, he perhaps should have been on the journey longer. The cinematography is quite exquisite, and the majority of the visual effects flawless. The music score is perhaps functional at best- it works, but its surprisingly subdued in the audio mix, unless that was an issue at my screening.

The film runs just under two hours, which is refreshing for some perhaps, but I thought it a little short, I think it would have benefited by more time and less narration- less concise, more obtuse, that kind of thing. Dwelt a little longer on the empty spaces between worlds rather than Space Monkeys and Space Pirates, but that was possibly a more intellectual exercise than 20th Century Fox was willing to make.

True Detective Season Three

true detective 3aTrue Detective Season Three continues (following a lengthy post-season two hiatus) this anthology show, here with a rather dense structure spanning three seperate timelines. Indeed, the central mystery of this season (relating to the disappearance of two children, and the murder of at least one of them) is almost incidental to that central conceit of the passage of time and its effects on the characters, and its impact on memory and self. It turns the season into a fascinating puzzle spread across some thirty-five years and benefits strongly from an excellent central performance from Mahershala Ali as detective Wayne Hays, whose life seems forever caught up by the mystery concerning the Purcell children’s disappearance. Two investigations, the first in 1980 when the children are lost, and a further re-investigation in 1990, fail to satisfy Hays and in 2015, with dementia already unraveling his sense of identity as the memories of his life slip away, he anchors himself to the case like it’s some kind of mental life-belt, to try finally to make sense of the case and maintain his sense of self.

The season takes place over eight episodes and slips between the three timelines almost as if without reason and defintely without warning, Its certainly disorientating but cleverly draws you in, making you a participant in the story as you try to make sense with the characters, particularly the increasingly bewildered Hays. Its also very well handled, how it often transitions between timelines, and very reminiscent of the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the transitions are poetically lyrical.

true detective 3bIn one episode, having tricked the driver of a mysterious car hanging around his home in 2015, Hays finds himself suddenly alone in the dark street, one solitary streetlamp above him in a world of inky black void. He sees a fire a short distance away, and walks towards it, finally coming to the backyard of his 1990 home. He sees his younger self, naked but for boxer shorts, standing at a trash bin in which he is burning some clothes. His younger self, alerted by the sound of his older 2015 self, turns around to face him but that old self is gone. Now alone, he scrutinises his burning clothes and his wife walks out into the yard, worried at what he is doing… and the scene continues in 1990. This kind of thing happens all the time, and we often don’t know if what we are seeing is what really happened or just what the 2015 Hays is recollecting, his point-of-view that of an unreliable narrator as his dementia takes hold: in one scene in 2015 he has a positive conversation with his old partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) about the old case, then goes to the toilet. When he returns a few minutes later he greets West as if he hasn’t seen him in years, totally forgetting the earlier conversation. If his mind is that hazy, just how unreliable are the old events we are seeing?

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter, because the case isn’t the twisted and dark shocker that fans of the first season, certainly, may have been hoping for. You can go to the well too often in attempts to shock and surprise (as demonstrated in the unravelling of Game of Thrones in its final seasons). It instead transpires that perhaps the real central concern of the season is the ties between freinds and family, and how their relationships are affected both by the case and the relentless march of Time. I’m sure it’s no mistake that the way Kubrick managed the fluid flow of time and ageing in 2001‘s strange eerie finale in the alien hotel room is replicated here so often. Its almost as if Hays is lost in Time himself, as much a witness and viewer as we are. It makes for a really interesting storyline and I really appreciated having mature characters as central protagonists and feeling the impact of the decades upon them.

true detective 3cThe sense of morbid dread and unease permeating through this season was almost tangible, intensified no end by a really disturbing soundtrack that was quite relentless and reminded me of some of Vangelis’ more experimental work back in his Nemo days (particularly, say, the bell-like clanging of metal tubes/scaffolding during the Bradbury building chase in Blade Runner, drenched in reverb). Certainly something got under my skin; during this past week of watching this season my sleep became increasingly uneven and I often found my daylight hours pondering what was happening in the most recently-watched episode and what might happen next.

In something of a minority, I was actually a fan of the shows second season, and I think across its three seasons it remains one of the better shows currently airing. Its title recalls the dime-store pulp novels lining the book carousels in stores of the 1960s and 1970s, their gaugy covers and dark, noirish stories, but doesn’t ever fall into the trap of, say, the rather more populist sensationalism of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction movie. True Detective’s protagonists are people caught in worlds they cannot control, caught up in events that overwhelm them. Its Lovecraft by way of Philip K Dick. I could watch this kind of stuff all day long and hope that the wait for a fourth season isn’t as long as it was for season three.