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.

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.