AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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ad astra

Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

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Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

rogue-one-poster

4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

star_trek_beyond_poster

2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

ARRIVAL (2016) – Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Tale

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arrival

ARRIVAL (2016) is a thought-provoking science fiction film that joins the ranks of other recent science fiction hits, films like INTERSTELLAR (2014), THE MARTIAN (2015), GRAVITY (2013), and DISTRICT 9 (2009).  That being said, it doesn’t quite reach the same impressive blow-your-mind heights of Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, but it does come close.

Alien ships have suddenly descended upon Earth, but these aren’t the war-like machines from H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS.  On the contrary, these humongous ships simply hover peacefully above ground with no sign of activity inside or out.  At first authorities all over the world aren’t even sure they are occupied.

But occupied they are, as a door to each ship opens every few hours, allowing authorities around the world access to them, and everyone has the same question:  what are they doing here?

The militaries of the world especially want to know because they’re fearful the aliens might be planning an invasion.  And so in the U.S., the military surrounds the ship, and lead officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) assembles a team to make contact with the aliens led by linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

And this really is Amy Adam’s movie, because the film revolves around her character, Louise Banks.  It’s Louise who faces the daunting task of trying to communicate with the aliens, of trying both to teach the aliens our language and learn theirs.  By far, these scenes are the best in the movie, very thought-provoking, and highly captivating.

Banks also has been dealing with a personal crisis, as she had recently lost her teenage daughter to cancer.  Throughout the film, Banks sees flashes of moments with her daughter, as there seems to be some connection between their past and the aliens she’s now communicating with, but what it is, she has no idea.  Moreover, she’s exhausted and knows that these episodes could simply be the result of too little sleep.

ARRIVAL was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed SICARIO (2016), which was my favorite movie last year.  One of the main reasons I wanted to see ARRIVAL was because Villeneuve was directing it.  And he doesn’t disappoint.

There are some very memorable scenes in this movie.  The image of the huge ships hovering just above land are very cinematic, although not entirely original.  DISTRICT 9 used similar images to great effect as well.

But the scene where the aliens first appear to Louise and Ian is a good one, very creepy and suspenseful.  And the ensuing scenes where Louise and Ian work to communicate with the aliens are fascinating to watch.

The film does try to generate suspense in other areas, as some of the other countries, specifically China and Russia, are less patient with the aliens than the United States and threaten to blow up the alien ships before sufficient contact is made, making Louise’s job a race against time, but the best scenes in this film are the the thought-provoking science fiction ones.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer is decent.  Heisserer wrote the scripts for a bunch of recent horror movies, including the reboot of  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2009), the reimagining/prequel THE THING (2011), and LIGHTS OUT (2016).  I wasn’t crazy about any of these movies, but I liked ARRIVAL a lot, so this is easily Heisserer’s best screenplay to date.

I enjoyed the story and the characterizations, but what I didn’t like as much was the ending.  For its big payoff, the moment audiences eagerly await throughout the film, which is the answer to the all important question:  just what are the aliens doing here?  I thought was less than satisfying.

I totally get it from Louise’s perspective.  I understand what she learns and why it’s so mind-blowing.  From her point of view, it’s really cool.  But from the aliens’ point of view, it’s less so. I couldn’t help but wonder after learning the reason for the aliens’ visit if their actions made complete sense. I’m not so sure.  The ending to Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR worked better for me.

The acting here is first-rate.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams, and once again she delivers a terrific performance.  Dr. Louise Banks is the central character in the movie, and Adams is more than up to the task of carrying this film on her shoulders.  She’s believable as the brilliant linguist and as the grieving mother, haunted by images of her deceased daughter’s childhood.

Jeremy Renner is equally as good as scientist Ian Donnelly, although his character is secondary to Adams’ Banks.  The two also work well together and share some sexual chemistry which keeps the progression of the story believable.

The supporting cast is decent as well.  I thought Michael Stuhlbarg was particularly good as CIA agent Halpern.

There’s been a resurgence of quality science fiction movies in recent years, and this is a good thing.  You can go ahead and add ARRIVAL to that list.  While not quite the grand slam that was Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, it’s still an above average science fiction movie.

All in all, ARRIVAL is a satisfying science fiction tale about an encounter with an alien race that may or may not be trying to teach us something.

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