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AD ASTRA (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

AD ASTRA (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: James Gray

Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan

Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler etc.

Music: Max Richter

Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



There’s a moment toward the end when Brad Pitt’s intrepid astronaut, Roy McBride, is floating in space, and he asks himself (via a voice-over), should I carry on? Is there any point? In the vastness of space, nearing the endgame of an epic mission full of danger, he asks himself if it is worth, existentially speaking, continuing. It’s a central theme to the whole film and perfectly encapsulates McBride’s character. Externally he is heroic, however, internally he is perpetually questioning whether life is worth living. I often find myself doing this, but not in space. It’s usually when my alarm goes off in the morning and I have to go to work.

But McBride is not pathetic like me. I cannot even get on a plane for fear of crashing. He is on a mission to save Earth. Because, in the near future, catastrophic destruction is threatening us. Thus, he is given the task of venturing to Neptune, via Mars and experience all manner of space obstacles in order to track down the person or persons who may have caused the beginning of the end. This individual is alleged to be his father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. So begins McBride’s very personal journey to the stars; to the heart of the darkest space.



A while ago I wrote an article about Hollywood making unofficial “remakes” as part of their film output – you can read the article here. Essentially, I proposed that in amidst their sequel, prequels, adaptations and superhero movie releases, you will get original screenplays and content too. However, sometimes these original ideas are thinly veiled carbon copies of ideas and structures from other films or literary sources.

For example, Star Wars (1977) used The Hidden Fortress (1958) structure and characters as an original starting point. Likewise, James Gray’s stunningly crafted science-fiction drama. Ad Astra (2019) is clearly using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as, not just influences, but total structural replication.

This in no way effected my enjoyment of this enthralling epic. What did happen though is that the story structure felt very familiar. The narrative unfolds in a staccato style with elegantly shot space transportation sequences and McBride’s psyche testing stops, spiked with bursts of action, fighting and surprising twists. When Clifford finally reaches Kurtz, I mean his father, his character and the audience have experienced some truly thrilling and visually spectacular moments. We also experience the psychological and philosophical musings of McBride. But, arguably these are nowhere near as poetic as Martin Sheen’s voice-over from the Coppola war classic.



In most scenes the visuals steal the show. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and production design creates a hive of imagery which, amidst the darkness, bursts with colour and light. I genuinely, especially on Mars, felt like I was in a moving art installation. Having said that, Brad Pitt’s subtle but emotional performance and Max Richter’s sumptuous score also enhance the emotional pull of the story. Pitt, I expect to win a Best Supporting Oscar as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), but he could also get a Best Actor nomination here.

James Gray directs with a deft and “less is more” hand throughout. While the production itself looks epic, the psychology of the film is one of introspection. His themes of obsession, journey and existentialism drew me in the way they did in his last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). Ultimately, although the film’s screenplay could have ironed out some thin characterisations and plot inconsistencies, Gray demonstrates that the very existence of his films certainly make life worth living.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CINEMA REVIEW: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

CINEMA REVIEW: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

TITLE: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

DIRECTOR: James Gray 

SCREENWRITER:  James Gray (based on the non-fiction book by David Grann)

CAST:  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

the_lost_city_of_z_still

I’m not a great traveller myself. Boats and trains aren’t too bad but I can’t stand flying. If I feel the need to experience the world I am more than happy to either Google a place or vicariously familiarise myself with other worlds and cultures by absorbing it through TV or indeed at the cinema. Moreover, stories about explorers, adventurers, mountain climbers, adrenaline junkies and the like are not always my favourite kind of sub-genre film. Obviously, if it is a story well told then I am open to all genres but more often than not the obsessive and narcissistic characters in pursuit of thrills or far flung places can leave me cold. Not so with James Gray’s epic adaptation of The Lost City of Z which focuses on soldier, surveyor and explorer Percy Fawcett’s dogged search for definitive archaeological proof of a historical Amazonian civilisation.

lost_city

The story begins at the turn of the 20th Century where Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is a mid-ranked officer in the British Army. Keen to find some serious military action he’s disappointed to be given the job of surveying and mapping the uncharted borders of Bolivia and Brazil. Accompanying him is his guide and aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Pattinson) and what begins as a punishing journey into the heart of darkness becomes, over the course of the film and subsequent expeditions, an obsessive ‘Holy Grail’ type quest for Fawcett. The drama in the jungle gives us Fawcett’s encounters with: the elements, piranhas, rapids, illness, wild animals, starvation, dehydration, cannibal natives and even an Opera concert at a plantation deep in the forest. However, the conflict back in Blighty is just as resonating as Fawcett battles the naysayers who question his belief that the indigenous tribes may have been in anyway civilised or cultured. Indeed, as a historical critique of the old British Empire and their inherent racism the film makes some interesting points.

lost


I watched the film at the Picturehouse Central on a 35mm print and it really added to the old-fashioned, poetic and golden feel of this attractive sprawling epic.  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Tom ‘new Spiderman’ Holland and Sienna Miller all provide excellent performances. Hunnam – who I know from his sterling work on Sons of Anarchy – stood out especially and given the right script choices he’s likely to become a bona fide movie star. His Fawcett is a complex, confident but honest man who, while obsessed with his pursuit of the Lost City, loves his family and stands on the side of the righteous. The director James Gray and his filmmaking team, above all else, deserve special mention for delivering a beautifully shot, acted, paced and edited historical drama. Indeed, this fascinating material deserved more screen time and it was so mesmeric I could easily have watched this film for hours.     (Mark: 9 out of 11)