Ad Astra

It is rare for me to watch the same movie twice in theaters and even more so to do it within 24 hours. In fact, I have not done this ever, until today, but this film demanded it. I did not know much about the story before the first viewing. I knew that it was a space opera, so I was really hoping for it to be good, as this is probably my utmost favorite genre and there aren’t that many entries in it, at least not in the last two decades. Brad Pitt was the lead actor, so I knew that the acting will be good, and the buzz from the critics seemed favorable enough, so I was hoping for this movie to become the next best thing ever, at least in my eyes. Afterwards, knowing what the movie was about, I went back to see it again, to find out if there is anything that I might have missed the first time around, some hidden subtleties, details, which would confer extra meaning or depth to the movie. But, alas, Ad Astra is not what I hope it would be. It is probably the most realistic depiction of space travel though, as it feels longer than a rainy Monday and is boring as hell…

The story goes as follows: Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, an astronaut extraordinaire. He is so dedicated, so focused on his duties, that all other aspects of his life are totally ignored. As it happens, one day he is working on this huge tower, some sort of telescope or what, that reaches from the ground all the way to the edge of space. They are searching for alien civilizations, which seems to be everybody’s past time hobby those days. Regardless, Roy is on working outside on the tower, at the edge of space when suddenly the tower gets hit by a surge of energy which wrecks the place. Turns out, the surge comes from Neptune, where Roy’s father went a long time ago to search for, you guessed it, alien civilizations. Apparently, he might have something to do with the surge. As such, Roy must travel to Mars, so that he can get in touch with his father in order to find out where exactly is he and then to be able to do something about what happening, because the surges just keep on coming and they are frying all electronics and possible they can kill all life on Earth. Needless to say, this would be bad. To prevent it, Roy ventures after his father, to the edge of space…

So, let us get trough the positives first. The movie is just beautiful to look at. Wide, crystal clear shots when it comes to scenery and action. Great, detailed close ups when it comes to dialogue. And there is an interesting play with lighting and colors trough the movie. But this is no surprise as the cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, one of best in the game right now. Also, the sets, equipment’s, the general world building looks authentic, albeit somewhat dated. I mean, I would expect that in the near future, space travel would look a bit more modern than a bunch of gauges, buttons and knobs, but then again I am no space travel expert and the movie looks really authentic in every other aspects, so maybe this too is on the level. But it is safe to say that if space exploration wouldn’t have died off after the moon landing, today we would be at the level depicted in Ad Astra. That being said, Kubrick did the whole space travel thing better.

 The acting, as mentioned in the opening, is great. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, taking a page out of Ryan Goslings book. By this I mean that his performance is really restraint, and instead of talking he lets his eyes convey his reaction/message. It is an unusual approach from Pitt, but it works wonders. Second most important role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the father of Roy. Jones too gives a great performance, although he has a fairly small screen time and a role that he could carry easily woken from a drunken stupor. Other supporting roles go to Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, both of which are fine. Liv Tyler is also credited, but she is barely on screen, and has just one scene where she talks, and even there, she talks of a mobile device as a recorded video message. Now, revisiting the trailers after watching the movie, it is clear to me that the first act of the movie was somewhat different at one time and there is a lot of shots that ended on the editing rooms floor. So, it is possible that all the secondary actors had bigger parts in the beginning. Maybe we will find out when the movie is released on home video.

But what I really wanted to talk about this movie is James Gray, the director/screenwriter of this movie. He previously did movies such as The Lost City Of Z and We Own The Night. He himself described this movie as a mix between 2001 A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. While the comparison with 2001 ASO is self-explanatory, I find the comparison with Apocalypse Now to be superficial at best. Yes, in both movies the hero had to travel a great distance to find a once exceptional now fallen from grace character and kill them. But everything else is different. Apocalypse is a war movie, not just because it happens with a war in the background and its characters are soldiers, but because war, and the horror it inflicts on everybody involved, is an essential, vital component of the movie. It is what moves both the hero and the antagonist. Ad Astra is a space opera, but in this case, space is nothing but a setting. Both the hero and the antagonist are astronauts, but they might as well could have been musicians in 18th century Vienna, and the essence of the story would not have changed at all. You need war for Apocalypse, you don’t need space for Ad Astra.

This is mainly due to the fact that, in essence, Ad Astra is nothing more than a 2 hour long therapy session. How the obsession of the father becomes a destructive force in his child’s life. In this regard, Ad Astra is a perfect companion to Grays previous film, The Lost City of Z, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed by the idea of finding a lost city, that he neglects his family and his son, once at age, in an attempt to win his fathers love, joins one of his expeditions, only to die in it. Here too, we have something similar, but now the viewpoint is the one of the child’s, how he tried to win his absentee fathers love all his life, by shaping his own life in his father’s image, dedicating himself to his father’s ideals, ending up to embark on the same journey to the end of the world in order to reconnect. All the big ideas that are touched upon in the movie, like “is there life out in the universe besides us?”, “where does humanity go in the future?”, “what if we are all there is?”, are nothing more than afterthoughts, something cool to wave in front our eyes, but they are never examined, never explored. These ideas should be the driving force for something like Ad Astra, instead they are barely footnotes. Granted, these concepts are far more complex to process than a screwed-up father-son relationship. To re-enforce the idea of the therapy session, the hero needs to undergo regular psychological evaluations, in order to gain permission to go further with his mission. Apparently, it is not a good thing to be emotional for astronauts.

Honestly, my immediate first choice for comparison was Interstellar, as both movies deal with the salvation of the human race trough the means of space travel and both of them involve a complicate father-child relationship. Also, both of them were shot by Hoytema.

But, at the end of the day, it is irrelevant to which other space opera movie are we comparing Ad Astra. Despite all the visuals and performances, it is a boring story. And while the hero finds catharsis, us, the audience, are underwhelmed. There is nothing for us to stay engaged with, to root for, to offer us satisfaction. It leaves us in the same state as the astronauts are desired to be in it, emotionless.
 Which is a pity, because it is rather clear the movie had more to offer, that its world has been conceived in more detail. There are armed conflicts on the moon for territory, there are pirates there as well, but besides an irrelevant buggy chase and a couple of mentions, we get nothing from this idea. There are experiments done in space, but besides a scene worthy of a horror movie, we get nothing more from this either. There is an outpost on Mars, what’s life there? Nope, not a thing. Brooding and self-reflection? Oh yes, please, you can have hours’ worth of that stuff. I could watch 2001 ASO and Interstellar back to back and it still would not feel as long as Ad Astra. Also, it would be a MUCH more satisfying watch as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn down the road that originally, this would have been a much different movie, with a much longer run time and that the studio has applied pressure on the filmmaker to trim it down to 2 hours. It’s definitely one of the years bigger disappointments.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

Sometimes, I get lucky. There are movies out there that are meant to be viewed on the big screen, and on the big screen only. By this, I mean the projection screen of a cinema. You can have the biggest TV at home with all the bells and whistles, it would still be insufficient. By all means, 2001 A Space Odyssey, is one of these films. Me, being somewhat of a snob, would like to be able to tell, that indeed I have saw these landmark films on the big screen. It goes a long way in terms of credibility of me being an avid movie fan, a film connoisseur even (again, I am a snob). The thing is, since the movie in question was released in the 60s, your nearest cinema most likely will not have it on the screening schedule. Actually, unless something special is going on, you are pretty much shit out of luck. But like I said, sometimes I get lucky. As it happens, this year is the 50thanniversary of the film’s release and Warner Bros. together with Chris Nolan have took it upon themselves to restore the film using the same photochemical ways it was produced (read about this here). Also, the product of said restauration efforts just happened to be part of a classical film marathon that is currently going on in my city. And yes, it was a pretty sweet experience.

Now, I have seen 2001 A Space Odyssey before, but I saw it on a small TV and as a child, so the entire thing was lost on me. My only memory of the entire affair is that it was way too long and extremely boring. Therefore, when the above described opportunity has presented itself, I was rather curious to see what my reaction would be this time. I do not enjoy old movies even if sci-fi is my go to genre, and there are a couple of movies out there considered to be among the all-time greatest that I just cannot get behind (I am looking at you Citizen Kane). But, regardless, this was a venue that I could not miss. But let us talk about the movie.

The story can be resumed quite easily. A mysterious black monolith jumpstarts civilization when under its influence some apelike creatures start using tools for the first time (which would be a weapon, naturally). Couple of millennia later, the fully civilized mankind discovers a similar monolith on the moon that has some connection to Jupiter, so a mission is dispatched to investigate. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

Now, the very first thing that I have walked away from this screening is that the movie has a much broader scope that I remembered or in fact, that people seem to realize. Whenever 2001 ASO comes up in a conversation, most people automatically think of HAL, the computer of the spacecraft sent to Jupiter and the events that transpire around it. I have to disagree on that. In my opinion, the odyssey is not from the moon to Jupiter. The odyssey is from the hairy apelike creature to the celestial baby. Now, at this particular junction I have to mention that it was both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s intention to leave the viewer with far more questions than answers, so there is no one good answer to this movie and the fact that everybody got their own take of it is by design. But moving on with my own. In my opinion, it is inaccurate to consider this movie to have a singular story. In fact, there are 5 different stories interlaced here. The first one is the dawn of man, the bit with the ape creatures, which is basically an origin story of us based on the ideas of Darwin and Carl Sagan. The second story actually isn’t a story at all but a beautiful presentation of the world of the future, how 2001 was expected to be. Commercial space flight, space station, moon station, video phones. All companioned by classical music, which was a great choice. Personally, I enjoyed this part the most because it managed to amaze me. I really would have like to visit the world painted in front of my eyes by Kubrick. It was grand, it was beautiful, and it was in space. And considering that it was done with effects from the 60’s, it is most impressive. Star Wars never managed to capture my eyes in this way, and that movie came out one decade later. In fact, the effects in Star Wars seem to be childish in comparison with 2001 ASO. The third story is the briefest of them all, with mankind discovering the monolith on the moon and deciding to keep it a secret until they have a better understanding what they are dealing with. The fourth story is the journey to Jupiter and of course the story of HAL. Now, it is understandable why everybody thinks that in fact the entire movie is about this part and everything else is just buildup. It is, after all, the most palatable story of them all, where we have actual character development, a plot and not to mention excitement. Also, HAL is one of the most memorable robot, or to be more correct, most memorable AI ever to be seen in a movie. But if we take a closer look of just how much time is spent on Discovery One (the spaceship making the journey to Jupiter) vs. the total runtime of the movie, we will find that this story is all too short for it to be the main dish, the essence of it all. Sure, HAL and all its actions do represent a fair share of topics that 2001 ASO brings to the debate tables, and yes, the topic of humans vs. AI is ahead of its time by almost 2 decades. The fifth and final story is the encounter between humanity, in the form of Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of the Discovery One mission, and the higher form of intelligence behind the monolith. And instead some pretentious dialogue between humans and aliens, Kubrick puts on screen a spectacle of lights and colors like never seen before. It is an almost 20-minute-long run of LSD high in a 70mm delivery system. It is memorable, to say the least. Naturally, the ending in itself is cryptic, and I do not have any theories regarding it. I do not need one. Kubrick did a rather realistic take of the story, even if we are talking about sci-fi. He tried to come as close to reality as possible on all fronts and most of the time, he managed to do so. So how can you be realistic about an actual encounter with a higher power? You can’t. Hence our open-ended ending of a film, where nothing is answered but plenty is provided for us to try to wrap our brains around.

As I have said before, this screening of 2001 ASO was a rather enjoyable experience. Both because I finally had the opportunity to fully enjoy its technical achievements and I was old enough to appreciate the film itself and what it was trying to accomplish. That being said, the film has plenty of flaws. The most crucial issue with it is its runtime and pace. It is two and a half hours long, which kind of feels appropriate on paper for an epic like 2001 ASO, but it really wears you out. It takes over an hour to get to Discovery One, where the more traditional story telling kicks in. Everything up until that point is either visual story telling or pure exposition. Either way, there is nothing for the viewer to attach itself emotionally, despite the spectacular visuals. Also, once we are done with Discovery One, we are back to visual storytelling, which is even more spectacular visually than before, but it is also far more alien to our minds. And while I do understand the intention, the effort made by Kubrick, and I will praise his genius, I do feel that the editing could have been improved. Also, in many instances, like when the apelike creature fight or when the LSD kicks in on screen, the score consists in a heavy choir singing, that feels apocalyptical. The visuals are already difficult to process as is but then the audio doubles the burden for the viewer. I know, the two are matching in a way, but it just felt like overkill. And finally, during the moon sequences and early on Discovery One, the movie really shows that is was made in the 60s. We see all the technological marvel that we were supposed to achieve, yet the way people dress and talk got stuck in the 60s. It bothered me that besides the evolution of technology the filmmakers did not have the fantasy to contemplate the evolution of the people in their everyday life.

In conclusion, 2001 A Space Odyssey is a must-see film, for everybody. It has a well-deserved place in cinema history and it has aged far better than most films, even more so, given that we are talking about a sci-fi movie, a bona fide space opera. And if you have the chance, do see it on the big screen. It will be an experience.

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