Talking Movies

September 16, 2019

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt follows his comeback turn in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood with another stoic and very capable character housed in a curate’s egg.

Pitt is Roy McBridge, son of legendary lost astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy is renowned for having a preternaturally low pulse rate, never above 80, even in a crisis; such as at the start where he falls to earth off an atmosphere-scraping antennae following ‘The Surge’. He simply waits to stop spinning, then deploys his parachute; no point getting het up about it. The Surge killed 43,000 people but, it transpires, is only the beginning. It was caused by a wave of anti-matter attacking the planet as it courses across the solar system, growing in power as it travels from its origin off Neptune. Which as John Finn and John Ortiz’s brass inform Roy is where Project Lima is, and where they believe Clifford is alive and well and liable to end all life unless dissuaded by Roy.

It’s a minor miracle that neither Finn nor Ortiz instructs Roy to terminate Clifford’s command, with extreme prejudice. Because this is a film in thrall to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad; Clifford’s out there operating without any decent restraint, and the journey to save or end him will be psychological as much as physical. Donald Sutherland’s mentor Colonel Pruitt and Ruth Negga’s enigmatic Martian pop up for an allotted span of time much like characters in Apocalypse Now, as Roy travels from vignette to vignette on his quest. There’s an unlikely action sequence on the surface of the Moon as this dystopian future paints the orb wracked by conflict between competing miners and pirates preying on their divisions. A tense sequence responding to an SOS while en route to Mars might as well proclaim “Never get out of the boat”.

But as Roy suffers thru regret for his failed marriage to Liv Tyler and resentment at his father, the Conradian nature of things unravels. Director and co-writer James Gray splices in flashback imagery to show Roy hallucinating, but Ad Astra never gets hallucinatory. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema may be onboard but there is nothing as trippy as Interstellar’s closing chapter even as we orbit Neptune, while Max Richter’s music makes less of an impact here than a sampling of his work on Arrival. Tyler and Jones are unsatisfactorily used, and the pay-off for everything in character terms is as unsatisfying as the emotionally false moment with the medallion at the end of Super 8. Pitt is on good form, but Gray has delivered a film whose excellent special effects belie a preponderance of pomposity over actual insight or a point.

Ad Astra is engaging, but not nearly as intelligent as it so clearly believes itself to be and, as Hunter S Thompson would lament, it never gets weird enough.

3/5

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October 29, 2016

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog returns with a typically eccentric documentary on the internet which explores many fascinating topics with the likes of Elon Musk.

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‘Lo’ was the word, caused by a crash during writing ‘login’, that uttered in the world we now live in. That is the starting point of Herzog’s interviews with the men who created the internet as a means for computers to talk to each other to ensure human annihilation during the Cold War, and which now allows humans to talk to each to ensure … well, exactly what the internet ensures is something Herzog ponders over in the 10 chapters of the movie. He meets a family trolled with unbelievable cruelty so that the grieving mother seems not off point when she mutters that the Anti-Christ is entwined with the internet, as well as computer addicts whose lives have been ruined by the lure of the screen. But he also meets Elon Musk, full of enthusiasm for the internet on Mars, and scientists conducting experiments to see if thinking a thought can someday be used to issue commands to a computer.

‘Does the internet dream of itself?’ is the trademark bizarre Herzog enquiry, but this is a film filled with nightmares. If Napoleon was undone by the length of his supply chains to Moscow then humanity itself appears to be in an equally perilous state of being drawn ever further into the soon to be icy grip of our own Russian winter. Herzog unleashes a barrage of scenarios in which the world can no longer function, even down to feeding the population, as life has become too automated for its own good.

5/5

September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

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