Skip to main content

I am forever driven on this quest.

Ad Astra
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Would Apocalypse Now have finished up as a classic if Captain Willard had been ordered on a mission to exterminate his mad dad with extreme prejudice, rather than a mysterious and off-reservation colonel? Ad Astra features many stunning elements. It’s an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking from James Gray, who establishes his tone from the get-go and keeps it consistent, even through various showy set pieces. But the decision to give its lead character an existential crisis entirely revolving around his absent father is its reductive, fatal flaw, ultimately deflating much of the air from Gray’s space balloon.

So by the end, Ad Astra looks somewhat limp and less than revelatory. Prior to the final leg of astronaut Major Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) journey, however, the picture largely succeeds on its own terms. Sure, Roy somehow passing his psych evaluation after equating a crazy baboon with his own inner, father-imbued rage is an early sign this isn’t quite going to be the trenchant meditative mission movie we’d hoped for. But generally, it’s rewarding, and the Malick-esque narration is fairly minimal and more effective for that.

Unfortunately, the prospect of meeting daddy (Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride) prises the lid off Roy’s supressed psyche, and by the time he’s on his solo voyage, regrets and memories are tumbling out, none of them very stimulating and, frankly, most of them tending to the anodyne (Liv Tyler is in the cast as his estranged wife, but she’s effectively a silent symbol of loss, rather than an actual part). The Neptune passage of the picture isn’t a complete bust, since it carries an austere beauty when Roy isn’t blethering on (notably, it took Voyager 2 twelve years to get there, so it looks like space travel comes on in leaps and bounds very soon). But by this point, it has become clear that Ad Astra’s destination won’t be inspiring anyone, philosophically, emotionally, or otherwise.

As such, meeting Clifford and finding he (a) hasn’t shaved his head and put on a hundred pounds and (b) most stridently has failed to meet up with any unfriendly aliens, isn’t remotely surprising. "I have infinite work to do" is about as unhinged as Clifford gets. The very fact that Gray is making a space picture all about family (he should have cast Vin Diesel) tells us that, at best, he’s going to be on a testosterone-inflected version of Contact, but more than likely that his feet are much too firmly planet on terra firma for any of that alien or cosmic-consciousness nonsense. The most psychedelic Gray gets is the nature images projected on the walls of Roy’s quarters on Mars.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t a number of fairly out-there moments along the way, such as Roy climbing aboard a rocket through the tailpipe moments before lift-off and not getting singed, and managing to bust his way through one of Neptune’s rings back to his ship on a chunk of space station hull, a stupendously unlikely feat (so much so, I initially thought he was going to surf for it, Dark Star style).

I wasn’t let down by Jones being fairly standard-issue Jones, then, or by the emotional crux of the piece being Clifford’s admission that he doesn’t give a hoot about Roy, and Roy’s that he does about his old man (such that, inevitably, he meaningfully makes contact with wifey again at the end, who of course, has been mooning around all this time waiting for her man rather than getting on with her life). Gray had already long-since backed himself into a corner, and suddenly veering off into Sunshine or Event Horizon territory – other lost-mission space movies – just wasn’t going to happen.

The chief problem with Gray’s concept is that, similarly to the way anything veering from the scientifically plausible here undermines the whole due to a presiding emphasis on a feasible future – whereas the same might go unnoticed in, say, Armageddon – the cosmic scale absolutely fails to offer a fitting contrast to Brad’s intimate journey. It might have, but the parameters set render it, well, not twee exactly, but humdrum, mundane and finally slightly trite. Gray’s previous picture The Lost City of Z was similar in some respects – exploration of the unknown, a focus on familial relationships – but more satisfying for its ambiguity. That’s likely a consequence of being an adaptation, and I suspect Gray would be wise to try directing something he hasn’t also written; his perspective as a creator of material is far less interesting than as an executor.

Still, Pitt provides a sterling performance throughout. The swagger of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be getting all the (early) Oscar talk, but he’s doing more interesting work here. The only problem I had was that the voiceover, particularly with its laboured and somewhat facile wrestling for meaning, smacked more and more of Malick-lite fare as it went on ("I don't know if I hope to find him, or finally be free of him"). Pitt’s in frame throughout the picture, and required to underplay in expressing Roy’s contained nature (as such, it also put me a little in mind of Ryan Gosling interiorised spaceman in last year’s First Man). Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga are also memorable, while Natasha Lyonne has a mystifyingly brief help-desk cameo.

Mostly, though, you’ll remember the man against the landscape, or starscape, and Pitt’s stoic face juxtaposed against his changing environment, and the sobriety of the limitless as captured by Max The Leftovers Richter’s sombre, contemplative score. Hoyte van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s now regular DP, creates a mission of immersive beauty, even when the surroundings are as spartan as those of the Mars colony. And when it comes to the bursts of action – an enervating Moon buggy chase (travel to the Moon comes via Virgin not-quite-Atlantic), the attack by the space baboon, McBride taking command of the Neptune rocket – the standard is as compelling and gripping as any action movie.

Which may be a backhanded compliment, since it’s been suggested that at least two of these, the first two, came by way of enforced reshoots overseen by Dan Bradley. I might have more of problem with such unceremonious interference with a vision – if indeed that’s what happened – if I thought the vision was a refined one in the first place (I see these sequences may have been in the screenplay, and I have to admit, wistfully adding Liv Tyler seems as likely a studio dictate as any of the amped-up action, as does giving Roy a hero’s welcome rather than ending on an ambiguous note).

Because if Ad Astra fails to fulfil its potential, that’s down to Gray’s patchy premise rather than anything in its translation to screen (minus a few generations, and add a splash of the metaphysical, and you aren’t so far from Coco). The shame of it is, this won’t make nearly enough money to justify a $100m price tag, and it’s difficult to see how anyone at Fox ever thought a slow-paced science-fiction yarn aimed at adult audiences would. Perhaps they thought it had Nolan-esque potential, but Nolan’s the only one who can make hits out of material with Nolan-esque potential. Unfortunately, the inevitable lack of an audience for Ad Astra will simply further confirm that all there is left for cinema goers are comic-book franchises and live-action remakes of cartoons. The only surprise should be that Ad Astra wasn’t a Netflix production. Give it time, and Gray will surely find himself heading their way. And they’ll welcome him with open arms.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

Now we shall keep our mysterious rendezvous.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The fourth big screen adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra was released in the same year as the more successful Where Eagles Dare. 1968 represents probably the high water mark for interpretations of the author’s work, although The Guns of Navarone remains the biggest hit. As with most movie versions of MacLean novels (or, let’s face it, movie versions of anybody’s novels) fans of the book find much to gripe about; the latter half diverges greatly from the page. Those who complain about the languid pace are onto something too. To be sure, there’s an array of valid criticisms that can be levelled at Ice Station Zebra. But it also has a factor going for it that elevates John Sturges’ movie, and keeps me coming back to it; the über-cool presence of Patrick McGoohan.

The man who played The Prisoner (he filmed Zebra during a break from the TV show, which helps to explain the only truly hopeless episode in the run; Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, …