Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work: Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father

 

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Space Cowboys (2000)

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I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

First Man (2018)

First Man

You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.