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Movie Review: “Ad Astra”

My sci-fi tastes have always run in the broadly philosophical direction: perhaps it’s my lack of a STEM professional background, but I’d rather see a story more focused on the great search for meaning than on the technical details of orbital superweapons or warp drives. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Fountain,” and “Interstellar” are my jam.

“Ad Astra”—this month’s art-SF blockbuster from director James Gray and star Brad Pitt—is a superb example of that sensibility. Blending haunting visuals with a compelling and original narrative, it’s exactly the kind of “movie for adults” that Hollywood should make more of.

In the near future, Roy McBride (Pitt) is a successful astronaut who’s reached the top of his profession by deadening his emotions. Ubiquitous “psychological evaluation” computer systems, administered by the United States Space Command (“SpaceCom”) constantly assess the mental stability of astronauts traveling through deep space, hoping to avoid psychotic breakdowns.

Roy’s life is disrupted when SpaceCom informs him that his long-lost father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may be alive on the outskirts of the planet Neptune. At last report, Clifford was conducting mysterious experiments involving antimatter with the enigmatic Lima Project. Now, with cosmic-ray energy surges producing electromagnetic pulses across the solar system, Roy must find his father and somehow put an end to the surges. The journey takes Roy from Earth to the Moon (via a Virgin Atlantic flight—the Moon has become an elite tourist destination), from the Moon to Mars (where a lone military outpost beams laser-guided messages into deep space), and from Mars to Neptune’s rings.

Without giving too much away, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence plays a key role in the film. And as a result, the movie’s pivotal plot points admit of multiple interpretations. Viewed from one angle, “Ad Astra” is a critique of scientific research practices that prioritize an ever-elusive “quest for intelligent life in the cosmos” over improvement of the human condition. Viewed from another, the film is a critique of religion—that is, the search for transcendent meaning and purpose beyond what humans create themselves. But at the deepest and most fundamental level, I think “Ad Astra” is best read as a critique of scientism—the philosophical stance that life’s meaning is exclusively found within the process of empirical investigation, and that that which is non-quantifiable is not worth speaking about.

It’s this very ambiguity of message that makes “Ad Astra” so deeply compelling. And similarly, in keeping with that general approach, there are all sorts of things in “Ad Astra” that we glimpse once and never again: a miles-high antenna stretching from the Earth’s surface into outer space, violent separatists on the Moon who prowl the Sea of Tranquility on plundered rovers, raging primates in an abandoned space station, and much more. I’ve often thought that the movies that haunt us most are those that don’t feel the need to explain themselves at every step. Contemporary Hollywood, all too often, feels the need to provide backstory for everything: since the rerelease of “Star Wars” in 1997, every peripheral character in every blockbuster seems to end up with a plotline of their own (and sometimes even a cinematic spinoff). Overly commercialized, “Ad Astra” is not—and it’s so much the better for it.

The film also holds water on technical fronts. From a narrative standpoint, the film mercifully avoids cumbersome subplots (“Interstellar,” for all its virtues, was a pretty bloated product): it’s a propulsive, pitilessly linear tale that never loses itself in navel-gazing. And, to be sure, Pitt is great in the lead (as plenty of reviews have already pointed out, his star turn here is borderline Oscar bait).

In short, if philosophically-minded sci-fi is your thing (and you were a little annoyed that “Interstellar” lapsed so heavily into sentimentality and over-exposition by the end), “Ad Astra” is the movie you’ve been longing for.  It’s a genuinely original story in a marketplace saturated with reboots, sequels, and reimaginings—and it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2019 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “It: Chapter Two”

I’m quite aware that many of the people who will read this have no intention of watching “that scary clown movie.” Yes, those creepy red balloons are back, and yes, there are plenty of jump scares and gooey CGI creations. But honestly,  “It” and its sequel are not really horror movies on the level of, say, this summer’s “Crawl”—products churned out for a few million dollars and calculated to make some quick cash thanks to the genre’s massive multiplier effect. Instead, I’d classify them as those rarest of cinematic things: big-budget adventure stories for adults, which have more going on beneath the surface than merely a hunger for fast profits.

Picking up 27 years after the first film, “Chapter Two” follows the members of the Losers’ Club (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean), who all moved away during the years following the first film, as they reconvene in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Strange killings have begun again, signaling that the eponymous clown-demon (Bill Skarsgård) is once more on the prowl. This time, the Losers must vanquish it once and for all—by recovering “tokens” of their past that, when joined together, offer a chance of defeating the evil creature.

The film clocks in at almost three hours—and, to be fair, it does sag at a few points (the “token hunts” follow a formulaic pattern: buildup —> Pennywise attack —> resolution). But the storytelling pieces come together at last, and all the stray plot points resolve in an extended and intense climax, one that serves as a satisfying payoff of all the themes that’ve been built up across both films. There aren’t many films that still feel like cathartic experiences, but “It: Chapter Two” is one of them. 

There’s lots more I could write about the film itself, but what’s been especially interesting to me is the film’s mixed reception from certain critics—many of whom seem to be writing about a different movie than the one that played onscreen. Perhaps the most obvious example is a particularly atrocious review of the film by Vox’s Aja Romano, which contains the following remarks:

“The story always reminds you that Pennywise is born out of the rotting putrefaction of small-town America, specifically Derry itself. . . . [The film] wants us to know that the real evil in Derry is Derry itself and that Derry is every small American town. It delivers a few pointed establishing shots of the waning factory town completely covered in American flags. But despite the clearly political overtones of the adaptation, It doesn’t evince much self-knowledge about what its own politics are. In fact, if anything, it reifies rather than deconstructs the societal factors that cyclically make America evil again.”

Virtually everything in this is wrong. For one thing, the film takes pains to establish that Pennywise, the clown-demon, is a kind of cosmic extraterrestrial invader (the film’s final conflict even takes place at the site of its initial impact)—not a kind of avatar of rural rage. It makes no sense at all to treat Pennywise as a metaphor for American Deplorables, because it’s not as if our heroes become existentially fulfilled as soon as they leave the town. Their urbane post-Derry lives lives have plenty of dark edges of their own. Whatever Pennywise represents or symbolizes, it’s not something that maps seamlessly onto the contemporary political landscape.

Moreover, Romano’s take totally misses the genius of Stephen King’s original work. The film’s entire moral core is built on the juxtaposition of “good” elements of small-town life (friendship, tradition, bicycles, paper boats, swimming holes) with the “bad” (bullying, failure to reckon with the past, and so on). That is consistent with the broader body of King’s works: their lingering power comes from the intersection of the universal (common human experiences, such as coming-of-age, first love, marriage, parenthood, and so on) and the particular (the distinctive features of any individual life, which no one else can share). There is little room in this storytelling paradigm for “structural” critique—that which inherently blurs messy particularities in favor of a motif of unified struggle. And when King has attempted to get “political,” as in 2017’s “Sleeping Beauties,” the results are…not satisfying.

In short, “It” is simply not a story about America as a whole or about universal patterns of oppression. It is an irreducibly localist narrative, one that cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from affinity with a particular place and a particular set of childhood memories. If King’s “The Stand” is an urbanist’s vision of horror—massive, apocalyptic-scale destruction resulting in the collapse of civilization and the emergence of new political communities—“It” is the mirror image, a story that captures the anxieties specific to smaller communities.

The film adaptation—as glossy and viscerally satisfying as it is—doesn’t perfectly capture that sensibility (most notably, the unforgettable weirdness of the novel’s Ritual of Chüd, a ceremony capable of banishing Pennywise, doesn’t really come through on film). But the DNA of the story remains intact, and that’s something to celebrate. 

For plenty of audiences, “It: Chapter Two” (and its predecessor) will always just be “the scary clown movie”—no more, no less. But happily, the soul of the novel—or at least its best parts—is still there, reminding viewers the humblest and most mundane things in life (one’s town, one’s memories, one’s childhood promises) are worth fighting for. Indeed, they may be the things most worth fighting for.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2019 in Thrillers

 
 
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