Stowaway (2021)

stowI’m not sure why exactly, but there was something of Michael Crichton about Stowaway, something about how the high-concept premise was grounded by realistic characters/scientists trying to survive a dangerous situation against mounting odds. The title says it all really: a three-man mission to Mars is scuppered by a fourth person being accidentally stowed onboard. Its a neat premise even though eminently unlikely- the kind of thing that might work for a thirty-minute Twilight Zone as a neat idea (thinking about it, wasn’t it the plotline of the 1960s Lost in Space?). Stretched to a full movie though its hard to suspend the element of nagging disbelief. Indeed it almost ruined the whole thing for me, as I kept on expecting some major revelation towards the end that would answer my doubts and questions. 

Just how does a launch platform engineer get trapped inside a space capsule bulkhead, without anyone realising he was missing, and then only retrieved from said bulkhead by unscrewing the panel trapping him inside like some kind of space age reversal of The Cask of Amontillado? It didn’t make any sense to me, and the characters plea of ignorance/amnesia too convenient to really convince, either. I maintained doubts and a hope that my questions would be answered, but they never were, so consequently it was a constant distraction that almost ruined the whole thing for me and left me frustrated at the end.

So I suppose one’s entire enjoyment of the film is predicated upon how easily one can accept its premise and lack of explanation. Certainly there is plenty to enjoy- the art direction is absolutely top-notch, its as convincing a setting as I can remember in recent space films (perhaps taking a nod or two from Ad Astra) and the characters are just as convincing too.  Ships commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) is an astronaut veteran of previous Mars missions, calmly reassuring and nudging her two crewmates, scientists Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, who quietly steals the show). Both Kendrick and Kim are rather endearing and most importantly quite convincing as scientists trying to prove themselves and validate their research (possibly the Crichton element I referred to). Stowaway Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) is a prospective applicant for a later mission who seems to have inadvertently circumvented the application bit until its realised that having an additional consumer of ship consumables endangers everybody.

Its a dramatic film and really quite impressively made, technically- I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the science, as the MTS is set to revolving in order to maintain an artificial gravity reminiscent of how Christopher Nolan did it in Interstellar and then an extension rolls out like some kind of counter-balance and solar array but surely the centre of gravity was subsequently wrong (surely the MTS would continue to be the centre of gravity, but instead this shifts to the Solar array instead). I watched external visual effects shots of the ship on its journey and it just seemed at odds with what I’d seen earlier but never mind, maybe that’s just me missing something, or I saw it wrong, but this coupled with my nagging doubts about some guy being somehow sealed/screwed-in behind an important bulkhead panel left me troubled.

I suppose this film is the very definition of a flawed film, then. Maybe another viewing would alleviate my suspicion/disbelief, and likewise I had to wonder about how healthy a canister of oxygen would be having been blasted by deadly cosmic radiation, but that latter point is really the lesser of my concerns. When the central premise of  film, the crux of the whole drama, is predicated on something that just did not satisfy me at all, then I guess the film’s in some trouble. Either I missed a central piece of dialogue that answered everything or the film deliberately rushed past everything bluffing its way through (I suspect it was the latter). But its definitely well worth a watch, and no disaster.

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.

End of Year Report, 2019.

Didn’t get my Replicant Pleasure-Model in the mail, nor did my new car launch vertically into the air for a commute to work in the sky-lanes… and neither was I able to book my holiday Off-World, so thanks for ‘nowt, Ridley…

But 2019 did come with some great television shows and movies. That said though, there were plenty of clunkers and disappointments.  I think what I shall remember most of 2019 is that it was clearly a year when television content surpassed movies in quality by a pretty wide margin.

In my previous post I mentioned that I watched three seasons of The Expanse this year, which was pretty amazing and certainly one of my favourite shows of the year, but there was plenty of other quality shows. Some clunkers too, mind- February brought the first (and thankfully last) season of Nightflyers, a truly abominable creation that so soon after having enjoyed the brilliant The Expanse brought my sci-fi viewing crashing back down to Earth. At the time I was confident it would be the worst piece of television I would see all year, but I was innocently ignorant of Another Life coming later in April. The fact that Another Life has been granted a second season is just mind-boggling and very, very scary.

Certainly the good outweighed the bad, though, if only because you can afford to be judicious with so much content available across Netflix and Amazon Prime. By March I’d also see season two of The Crown, the first outing for The Umbrella Academy, season one of Stranger Things and Love, Death & Robots, a ridiculously entertaining anthology show that was a Fantasia for sci-fi geeks like me, and totally beautiful.

Regards movies though, I had really struggled to see anything really memorable until April, when I saw both Bad Times at the El Royale and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. El Royale really impressed me on a rental, so much so that a few months later I bought the 4K disc. Then in May John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum blew my mind on a rare trip to the cinema, an absolutely dizzying action-fest that instantly put itself as prime contender for my Film of the Year. In an era of politically-correct naval-gazing and various worthy agendas being shoved in my face all the time, Wick was refreshingly old-school, unfashionably simple action-movie nirvana. May also brought Avengers Endgame, another rare cinema outing that this time proved hugely disappointing. I’m really curious to see if a rewatch will revise my opinion of the film, but even though I bought the 4K disc of the film when it came out a few months back, I still haven’t actually watched the disc. I keep thinking I should watch Avengers Infinity War first, maybe the two films in a double-bill over a weekend, but the length of the darn things proves rather daunting. All those Marvel geeks who watch all these movies often and know them inside-out are made of sterner stuff than I. Watching Captain Marvel just once, when the 4K disc came out in July , left me pretty burned-out on all things Marvel- the thought of the ultra-fans watching and re-watching that one is just plain scary.

Away from movies, April brought us the big television disappointment of the year, with season eight of Game of Thrones. In hindsight, it could only ever disappoint, it had hyped up the conclusion and all the show’s mysteries and intrigues over several seasons to such a degree, it was inevitable that it would all just implode. Didn’t think the crash would be quite so spectacular though. Having bought all the Blu-rays already, I bought the 4K disc set of season eight anyway, and am hoping that when I get the courage to watch it again after all these months the pain will be less, I can make my peace with some of the wilder crazier twists and maybe manage to see something in all the episode three murk now its in 4K UHD. We’ll see.

Much better television followed in June: and no, I’m not talking about season two of Star Trek Discovery, but rather it was the month when I caught up with Chernobyl, a breath-taking and harrowing series that was pretty much perfect. Discovery was far, far from perfect- it ably demonstrated that while much television can be great, it can also out-dumb and out-stupid anything Hollywood movie studios can do.

In August, I caught up with both Aquaman (a film that proved DC could still make worse movies than Captain Marvel) and Shazam! (a film that proved DC could actually make great, fun superhero movies). Aquaman would be another of those terribly busy movies that tried to fit three films into one, like some kind of Readers Digest edition of an actual film trilogy. It doesn’t work, it just gives me an headache. I watched the 2017 remake of Flatliners, and although I thought that was diabolically appalling, I had no idea I’d also see the Jacobs Ladder remake later in the year, a film which would make the Flatliners remake seem a classic and put me in a total dark funk for a weekend.

Returning to television shows, August also sprung a major surprise with the quite excellent The Boys over on Amazon. The quality television continued into September with the long-awaited (by me, anyway) disc release of the third season of True Detective, which I really enjoyed (I love all three seasons of that show- yes, that includes the maligned second season) and Carnival Row, another Amazon show that was much better than I’d expected, even if it did leave me pining for the superior (and sadly missed) Penny Dreadful.

Sheesh, all these seasons of television shows and all their complicated multi-layered narratives. I suppose I should be glad most movies turned out to be rather less demanding, more simplistic and comfortingly predictable. A prime example would be September’s Ad Astra, which I was expecting to be a high-concept sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now. Well, it was certainly a sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now, almost literally so, but with lunar space pirates and a mad Space Baboon, it was rather more Event Horizon than 2001: A Space Odyssey. A disappointment then, and another example of the lack of confidence of movie studios to challenge and provoke audiences as much as HBO etc do on television. I would imagine that had HBO made Ad Astra as a ten-episode serial, it would have proven far more enticing and thought-provoking.It would probably look just as good too- the gap between television and cinema in regards of visual effects is obviously still there, but its much narrower than it used to be, and television more than makes up for any deficit there by better script writing. November’s The Lion King would prove to be a startling reminder of what visual majesty only cinema budgets can presently afford, but the same months Spider Man: Far From Home ably demonstrated that cinema could just get dumber and dumber even as it got prettier.

November also presented us with The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese gangster ballad that incredibly came to us via Netflix (I prefer ‘ballad’ to ‘epic’ just because its more, well, thoughtful and mature than the joyously questionable glorification of Goodfellas). The idea that a $150 million Scorsese flick could just drop onto Netflix on a Friday night still feels dizzying and possibly game-changing. I really enjoyed the film (its certainly more Once Upon A Time in America than Godfather or Goodfellas).

The Irishman did show, though, just how much has changed during 2019. Streaming services are all the rage now, and really will prove more of a Big Deal in 2020. The prevailing move by studios towards streaming and away from physical media, and indeed away from traditional vendors like cable and satellite television providers, is just a gathering storm that gets windier by the month. For someone like me who likes to own my favourite films and television shows and enjoys special features and commentaries, its pretty worrying. I can see a future not far away where streaming and pay per view is everything. Its clearly inevitable, but its a future where The Irishman can’t be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray, a future where you’ll probably need to subscribe to Disney+ in order to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies in the comfort of your own home (and I’m pretty certain that premium content on Disney+ will eventually require additional purchases in-app to watch; it may start as a subscription service but it’ll inevitably evolve into a pay-per-view service when alternative avenues like physical media are gone). Hopefully that’s more 2029 or 2039 though, and I’ll be past caring as long as I have a Blu-ray player working.

 

 

To the Stars, Dumbly

While the film has its moments, as expected, the science is pretty dumb in Ad Astra, despite what the marketing would have us believe. Here’s a great video in which Astrophysicist Andy Howell takes a look at the science of Ad Astra:

On the other side of the coin, check out this video they did about the film Arrival. Some great interesting stuff  about that one that can only make one appreciate what that film achieved even more:

Interstellar Strikes Back

inter1In the spirit of all things Ad Astra, I’ve elected to embark on a rewatch of similar sci-fi films (maybe it would be more pertinent that I should get around to that 4K edition Apocalypse Now first, but I’m sure its time will come, having just given that sets Hearts of Darkness doc a rewatch yesterday). First on the list was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which gave the me the opportunity to watch it on a 4K UHD disc that I bought last year and never watched.

Well, as far as 4K goes, I couldn’t really tell much difference in the picture quality, other than some nice careful use of HDR (the Black Hole effects at the end really benefit)- what I did find improved was the sound, with a nausea-inducing low level on the bass that threatened the walls of my house. I don’t know if its the same track as the Blu-ray but goodness its a loud and energetic track.

This time around the film held a few surprises- I  discovered  that Timothée Chalamet, who is playing Paul in Denis Villenveuve’s Dune project, featured in Interstellar, playing the young Tom (son of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper). I really hadn’t realised I’d already seen him in something- turns out Hollywood really is a small world. Speaking of which, David Gyasi, who played scientist Romily on the mission through the Wormhole, was featured in Carnival Row that I watched a few days back- he played Agreus, a Puck and therefore a performance under considerable make-up (one of the most noteworthy roles in the series, I thought). Of course the film also stars Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, who will both turn up in the next film on my list; The Martian.  So yes, small world indeed. I won’t mention that McConaughey also featured in that ‘movie’ I saw the other night because, well, we’re all pretending I didn’t see it.

While I did enjoy rewatching Interstellar, it remains a difficult film to really connect with- something I find true of many of Christopher Nolan’s films. They always seem detached, films of soulless characters in admittedly astonishing situations. Something like Interstellar, I should probably love, but I don’t, and I think that as its true of all his films, that’s down to Nolan’s style.

inter2What Interstellar undoubtedly is, is a fantastic audio-visual experience. Its use of music is pretty extraordinary, abetted by a brilliant Hans Zimmer score which dominates the film more than anything else in the picture. I think its Zimmer’s second-best score of his career (Thin Red Line having the number one spot, naturally), and it works so well in the film it never fails to ‘wow’ me. Of course much of its success is in the editing of the film, as it really seems to be edited to the score, rather than the other way around, and it really is a huge part of the film’s success.

The usual things still bugged me however. Nobody builds rocket engines alongside a conference room. I can never see those doors/wall slide open to reveal the silo next to them (that conference room must have extraordinary soundproofing) without a groan and I’ll never understand that thing of the NASA complex actually being clandestinely built to be spaceship. For a film that purports to be a serious science fiction film with real science etc, I’ve never been at ease with some of its ‘leaps of faith’ that would rankle Kubrick and Clarke no end.

That being said, I think I’ve made my piece with Gargantua and the bookcase. Its clear to me now that the wormhole wasn’t put next to Saturn, and set for Gargantua, in order for humanity to find a world to live there. Those worlds in orbit/proximity to the Black Hole were never candidates for human colonisation. That was an assumption by the NASA boffins and quite wrong- I’m sure humanity actually uses Murph’s gravity equation to travel to different worlds entirely. No, the wormhole was set for Gargantua simply because Cooper had to fall into the Black Hole and transmit the gravity equation data to Murph so that she could realise the technology to save humanity. It was all orchestrated by the ‘Future Humans’ in a kind of cosmic time paradox. It always bugged me that the last place to settle a human colony would be anywhere near a Black Hole, and rewatching it again I kind of realised that was never the case, whatever the NASA boys thought – in a nice Time Paradox kind of way, Matt Damon’s Space Madness-infected (hey, say hello Ad Astra!) Mann had to behave the way he did in order for Cooper to ‘sacrifice’ himself. So finding habitable worlds near that Black Hole was a fool’s errand rather than the film being stupid.

And I still think a whole film set on that dying Earth would be a splendid thing. Some of the best stuff in the whole film is in that sequence, including things like history being rewritten to show the Apollo landings were a hoax. I love that stuff, and there’s a whole great film in there- I’d love to know whats happening in the rest of the world.

 

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.