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Ad Astra

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Science fiction is a highly derivative and recognisable genre. This is one of its main pleasures – one sci-fi film can recall another and there is enjoyment to be found on recognising the intertextuality. Even when a film is not based on previous material, as is the case with Ad Astra, its antecedents are easy to spot. James Gray’s meditative space odyssey echoes 2001, Contact, Event Horizon, Gravity and The Martian, as well as historical dramas such as Apollo 13 and First Man. What it reminded this viewer of most, however, is Sunshine. Like Danny Boyle’s retina-scorching voyage through the great void, Ad Astra boasts awe-inspiring visuals, nerve-shredding tension and a misguided search for salvation. Much of the film’s power is conveyed through its intimacy with protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, mesmerising), a professional astronaut whose commitment to the job has largely isolated him from connections on Earth, especially with his wife Eve (a sadly underused Liv Tyler). When strange energy surges start causing havoc on Earth, and a mysterious message from Roy’s father, presumed lost astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), points to human events at the edge of the solar system, Roy embarks on his own odyssey, both into space and into himself.

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Joining Roy on this journey is the audience, subject to awe and amazement as the protagonist would be if he were not so emotionally distant. Sequences are often visually and audibly expressed from within Roy’s helmet: sights are distant but dazzling while sounds are conveyed – often intermittently – through Roy’s radio. The narrative is constructed perceptually, as Roy’s memories of his father, of Eve, of his earlier missions, frequently punctuate the present with flashbacks reminiscent of Solaris, Interstellar and Arrival. Roy’s voiceover may sometimes grate but, while it tells the viewer much of what he is thinking, there is little expression of feeling. As a result, the film presents a very personal journey with a person who is hard to fathom. This dramatic choice could be alienating for the viewer that tries to engage with Roy, and could be read as autistic. Roy is insular, highly rational and emotionally restrained, and also displays little understanding of human emotion, which can be an autistic perspective. Thus his journey, cocooned within his spacesuit and the various crafts that he travels in, manifests his detachment and perhaps gives the audience a sense of what that detachment might feel like.

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This conceit speaks to the best way to enjoy the film – as an experience rather than a character study. Marvel at the expanse of space; strain to catch the distorted radio transmissions; feel the terrifying freedom of zero gravity. Along the way, consider isolation and difficulties with human engagement, and how we might learn more about such engagement. The film also potentially critiques the sub-genre of space films, as women are largely pushed to the side while the white heteronormative male is charged with the important task of interplanetary excursions. But women and people of colour are nonetheless significant even in their reduced role, especially in Roy’s encounter with Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) on Mars. Come the film’s resolution, there is a powerful message about our world and ourselves as a people, a message that also points to the problems with such male-centrism and a need for alternatives. Like many a space odyssey, Ad Astra is ultimately a film about our home and our world(s), and how different and precious these can appear when viewed from a distance.

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First Man

First ManThe temptation of films set in space is to present a grand scale, taking full advantage to use the large screen to present the vast expanse as a metaphor for isolation, grief or whatever the filmmaker puts in or the viewer takes out. In the case of First Man, director Damien Chazelle goes the other way. From the opening sequence of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying an upper atmospheric craft, First Man is intensely intimate. Close-up shots and handheld cinematography are the order of the day, as Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross take the brilliant choreography and startling editing of Whiplash and La La Land to a wider canvas that is nonetheless exquisitely detailed. This detail is the world of Armstrong, a man internalised after the tragic death of his young daughter. Gosling is magnetic as always, his eyes speaking volumes and tiny gestures indicating his absorption. Equally impressive is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, left behind while Neil trains for the most dangerous and ambitious mission ever undertaken. Yet even when he is with her Neil remains distant, their connection one of deep feelings rather than external expression. This is perhaps the greatest strength of First Man: for all the historical significance of the Moon landing, it is a personal story. Other relationships such as those between Neil and his fellow astronauts as well as between Janet and the other wives are compelling and believable, while the sequences of training express not only the intensity and intimacy of space travel, but also the extraordinary perils, as the lunar module and other craft appear dangerously fragile. Despite knowing how the story works out, this personal space odyssey still takes the viewer to strange new worlds, echoing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece as well as the more recent Gravity and Interstellar. First Man may depict a giant leap, but the true drama here is in the small steps.

Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Nine

2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-014-monolith-sunThose familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. 2001_MAINUKQUADI had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.

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To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 1

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No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.

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To Infinity, and Beyond: Sci-Fi Countdown – Introduction

scifi-days-of-fear-and-wonder-compendium-cover-shadow As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…

Honourable Mentions

Star Wars (1977)

The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. star_wars_openerContact (1997)

Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Contact Solaris (2002)

Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. Solaris WALL-E (2008)

One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. wall-e-space-dance Interstellar (2014)

The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite. Interstellar

Interstellar

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Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

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At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

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That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

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Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

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Transcendence

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Transcendence does what the best science fiction stories do – gives big ideas the big treatment. This is both the great strength and the great pitfall of the genre: if the dramatisation of these ideas is effective, extraordinary cinema can be created (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix). If it is ineffective, you can be left with little more than tedious, pseudo-philosophical, techno-babble (see The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions). Transcendence falls somewhere inbetween, as it engages with its grand ideas with conviction and creativity, director Wally Pfister showing a keen eye for the tiniest details, both of nature and technology. At times, the overall scale of the events is not made clear, while several of the characters are essentially cyphers, and these features can undermine the drama. Overall though, the film’s conviction wins out, as Transcendence pursues its questions about humanity, identity, mortality and the dangers of good intention to their logical and, at times, unsettling, conclusion.