This US-China co-production is a long, effects-heavy space adventure film with participation by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B and both a starring role and a production role for Pitt. There are 17 producers, co-producers and executive producers listed on the credits, including the director James Gray. That tells you quite a lot. In fact, questions about production and distribution are probably more interesting than the film itself unless you are a Brad Pitt fan (and even then I think your attention levels might drop). The film is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in the UK and was originally a Fox Searchlight presentation. I couldn’t see anything announcing this was a Disney film and it must be one of the films already listed for a release when Disney bought Fox. Fox Searchlight was Fox’s niche brand focusing on slightly left-field or ‘smaller’ films and Ad Astra turns out to be a strange hybrid. The Chinese Bona Film Group were presumably looking for a science fiction blockbuster for Chinese distribution on IMAX screens whereas some of the US production partners seem to be from an American ‘Indie’ background and director James Gray is placed somewhere between ‘studio’ and ‘independent’ US cinema. I haven’t seen any of Gray’s previous films but I note that his debut feature Little Odessa (1994) won both a Silver Lion and the acting prize for Vanessa Redgrave at Venice.
The plot outline suggests a familiar American story about a father and son. Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, a USAF space pilot in the not too distant future who is sent on a mission to Neptune to investigate the possible source of ‘power surges’ which seem to be aimed at Earth and which threaten Earth’s security. The suggestion is that they may be connected to the disappearance several years ago of the Lima Project spacecraft and crew led by McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy had assumed that his father was dead and is committed to fulfilling his mission.
The narrative itself seems to be divided into sections which draw on familiar genre scenarios from various science fiction/space adventures. So Roy’s initial journey to the Moon and then Mars is reminiscent of 2001 with the addition of an action sequence and the introduction of elements of the paranoia thriller (has Roy been told ‘everything’ by the military top brass?). There are action sequences involving ‘space walks’ like those in Gravity and a short horror/thriller sequence. All these are presented with a Max Richter musical score complementing Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film looks great and sounds great and all those VFX guys from around the world can be proud. Unfortunately the script by James Gray and his long-term collaborator Ethan Gross seemed to me to be very weak. I note that the IMDb plot summary includes this line: “His [Roy’s] journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos”. I must have missed when that happened.
The casting decisions on the film seem at first to square with calls for diversity and the most joyous moment in the film is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers dancing in Stormy Weather (1943). But the significant characters are really only Pitt and Jones and the supporting characters are mainly ‘American’. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are completely wasted by the script. I’ve seen at least one ad promoting ‘Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler’ as the stars and that is nonsense. The characters are also primarily American as if space exploration in the future will be still on a national basis. This gender/nationalism question makes me think of other science fiction films, including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (UK-US 2007) – similarly a Fox Searchlight film but with much more imaginative casting. I found Sunshine to be much more entertaining, spoiled only by its overly religious ending. Religion seems to be everywhere in Ad Astra as well and that seems very American.
I also thought about Arrival, a film which I think has been under-rated and is the best sf film I’ve seen for some time. It seems to have something interesting to say and a real emotional heart. And it focuses on a woman. But like many of the most successful SF films, Arrival was based on a successful original short story. I couldn’t find any ideas as gripping in Ad Astra and I got the impression that the film’s funders thought that the spectacular elements of the film were more important than the ideas in the narrative.
I’m not a scientist and I don’t know much about astro-physics, but the science of Ad Astra seemed tosh. However, I have to admit that audiences seem to like this film, especially in the UK where after two weeks and a very small drop in takings it leads the international film market. I think this is a bad sign for the future of cinema.
At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.
High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).
The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.
The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.
High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)
If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:
Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda.But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.
The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.
Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):
I’ve noted from several film festival experiences that the ‘Opening Night film’ is often prestigious but not always very good. Tiempo después was the opening film of ¡Viva! 25. It had the largest audience of the three films I saw on Saturday, but I rated it the least interesting/enjoyable of the three. That doesn’t mean that it is a ‘bad film’ and it may well be my failure as an audience rather than an issue with the film itself. I note that the writer-director José Luis Cuerda was the director of La Lengua de las mariposas (Spain 1999) which Nick raved about on this blog. I also note that the array of excellent actors on screen in this recent film includes several who have worked with Pedro Almodóvar, including one, Carlos Areces, who was one of the camp air stewards on I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) – the most poorly-received of Almodóvar’s films in the UK. This may be significant. Is this an issue about Spanish comedy? Perhaps it is – but I really liked I’m So Excited and La Lengua de las mariposas. I think the problem here might be defined as ‘political satire’, which is very hard to pull off, especially for international audiences. (Cuerda also produced the first three films by Alejandro Amenábar, Tesis (1996), Abre los ojos (1997) and The Others (2001) – which is another reason to make him an important figure.) His last film as director before this one was the well-received The Blind Sunflowers (Los girasoles ciegos) in 2008. The new film has been widely seen as a form of development/updating of Cuerda’s comedy Amanece, que no es poco (1989) with his comedy style described as ‘surrealist rural comedy’.
The idea for the film is to present a future world (‘9177, give or take a thousand years’) in which civilisation on earth has been reduced to one imposing building plonked down in a landscape that evokes Monument Valley, Utah, aka ‘John Ford’s American West’. Outside this building which houses the rich and powerful is a rural trailer park in a woodland clearing where the ‘ordinary people’ live. The simple narrative involves one of those from ‘below’ attempting to enter the ‘palace’ above (which operates more like an office block or a conference hotel) and to sell fresh lemon juice door-to-door. This is not allowed since the King alone licenses traders, of which there must be three (no more, no less) for each service or commodity. Eventually our frustrated hero will lead an insurrection and fall in love. I won’t disclose how this works out.
The script is full of interesting ideas, perhaps too many interesting ideas, which can’t all be carried through. Everything you know about the history of Spanish culture, history and politics and probably quite a lot more that most of us non-Hispanics may miss, is referenced here. It is essentially a political satire about Spain’s past and possible future. There are many enjoyable characters and devices. I particularly enjoyed the small group of men who have learned how to fly simply by flapping their arms at different speeds. These characters are all dressed in flight overalls, goggles and helmets like extras in a Miyazaki anime about the 1930s Italian airforce. The King appears to be speaking Spanish in an English accent and, of course, there is an evil fascist priest in the palace. You know it is only a matter of time before somebody ‘below’ begins to speak about Don Quixote. Cuerda had originally written a novel using the same material and perhaps he might have invited someone else to do the adaptation?
I’m not sure I laughed out loud but sometimes I definitely smiled. I also confess to closing my eyes and then trying not to drift off into a mid-afternoon snooze. So, I wasn’t the best critical reviewer. I think, perhaps, that if you come to this film with less political baggage than I carry around, you might enjoy it more than I did. It seems to have been reasonably well received in Spain and if you are in the mood to spot the references you could have a good time. Here’s a trailer (without English subs, I’m afraid.) I note it is distributed in Spain by the Canadian multinational eOne, so it must have had a reasonable release in Spain last December.
The film is showing again at HOME on April 5th at 16.05.
So a real treat for fans of ‘reel’ film in West Yorkshire courtesy of The Celluloid Sorceress; The three earliest [the best] of the ‘Alien’ franchise from 70mm prints in the fine Pictureville auditorium at Bradford’s Media Museum. The event starts at 1300 with an introduction by the ‘Sorceress’ followed by the three films in chronological order.
Alien (1979) is undoubtedly a seminal movie. Ridley Scott, the space ship Nostromo and the star-studded crew offered a new downbeat style for science fiction. H. R. Giger’s designs for the monster crossed numerous mediums and spawned numerous copies. The shock value of one particular scene has diminished over the years but the film remains fascinating and exciting.
In 2002, Alien was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
In 2008, it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre, and as the thirty-third greatest film of all time by Empire magazine.” (Wikipedia)
It also remains the best of the lengthy series.
Aliens (1986) has become a cult film. It also benefited the British film industry being shot mainly at the Pinewood studio. Typically for the director James Cameron this title is longer on action and pyrotechnics than it is on character. It does have a very ingenious climatic battle.
The oddball variant of the trio. David Fincher’s film marries science fiction, religion and myth in a distinct manner. It transposes in its fullest form a motif [seen in Alien] of serial killer films to sci-fi, the labyrinth. It is also [literally and metaphorically] the darkest of the film series.
All three films screen in blow-ups from 35mm to 70mm, though Alien³ used 65mm film stock for the special effects. 70mm prints are really rare these days and here are three all together