Movie Review: Sci Fi/Drama – Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler
Movie Review: Sci Fi/Drama – High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, and André Benjamin
Movies about extraterrestrial life have long been a staple of science fiction films. In fact, for many fans, science fiction movies and aliens are synonymous. Whether it’s the now almost mundane bi-peds that cohabit the decks of countless Star Trek and Star Wars vessels, the deadly outer space virus that threatens humanity in the underrated classic The Andromeda Strain, or the mysterious god-aliens of Stanley Kubrick’s quasi-religious 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that remains, 50 years after its release, the benchmark for all science fiction films since, the idea of the mystery and wonderous possibilities of alien life, good or evil, still dominates the plethora of sci-fi films and TV shows that have saturated our culture.
There have been notable exceptions from the beginning: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was more concerned with the struggles of the proletariat than it was with the science behind its artificial life form, Maria the Robot Woman. The post-nuclear age brought numerous man-mad scientific terrors seemingly more frightening than anything aliens could summon up, generally in the form of giant insects. In the 90’s, out of control AI enslaved mankind in films like James Cameron’s, The Terminator, and the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, a theme that continues today in films like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. And there has lately been a trend toward “stranded astronaut” movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s riveting thriller, Gravity and Ridley Scott’s less riveting, but fascinating The Martian. The trend, if it can be called that, toward ET-free science fiction, continues this year with two distinctive outer space thrillers that completely avoid the human/alien dynamic, even rejecting its existence altogether, focusing instead on the human condition.
The most prominent of the two films, James Gray’s Ad Astra, produced by its star Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, is the more traditional and least interesting. When a mysterious power surge from outer space causes a major catastrophe on Earth and its outposts, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt), the son of legendary space pioneer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), is called to Mars to investigate. McBride is chosen because of his ability to keep calm in stressful situations, a skill that goes hand in hand with his inability to maintain meaningful interpersonal relationships, and because the person responsible for the deadly power surges may be his father. The elder McBride has traveled all the way to Neptune in a definitive search to find alien life known as the Lima Project. To reach him, McBride must navigate through top secret military protocols, good-guy astronauts determined to stop him, some rather dreary, if realistic, landscapes, and some even drearier interiors. It starts promisingly with a nifty space wheel (and a tip of the hat or two to 2001), a humorously commercialized Moon base, and an admittedly exciting Bond-esque buggy chase on the moon’s surface. But soon we’re on to the dreary dark orange pastels of Mars and a plot that seems reluctant to move forward, failing to maintain the suspense Gray’s moody atmosphere and quiet pace have labored so hard to create. When we finally reach The Lima Project, in a spacecraft orbiting Neptune, the lovely deep-blue, ringed planet that has been sadly underrepresented in Sci-Fi cinema, we have little interest in the inevitable father-son showdown.
While the Neptune sequences are visually stunning, the confrontation between the two men is cliched and lackluster. The project has failed in its vast search to find alien life, and the older McBride has lost his mind, unable to deal with the idea that “It’s just us.” Having, like his son, dedicated his life to his career at the expense of relationships, he’s terrified at the idea of being alone. The expected physical conflict and prerequisite shots of the disgraced dead hero poetically floating away in space lack the impact they could have had if the characters were better written. When the junior McBride travels home, lesson learned and determined to make amends with his girlfriend, his epiphany seem equally… weightless.
Gray, whose previous film, the liberal fantasy disguised as docudrama, The Lost City of Z, elevated its earthbound story of the search for a lost civilization into something magical, here renders the potentially majestic mundane. Its ultimate message – that what we really need, each other, is already here in our own back yards – is a worthy one, but it hardly seems necessary to have traveled two billion miles on the back of 100 million dollars’ worth of special effects to acquire the same wisdom Dorothy learned without even leaving Kansas.
On the opposite end of the sci-fi spectrum is High Life, French filmmaker Claire Denis’ 9-million-dollar English language art film in space. The film had its world premiere in 2018 at TIFF but was not released in the United States until this April where it received little attention beyond that of some critics. I’m not sure it was even released to theaters here in Kansas City. I unexpectedly and serendipitously stumbled on a Blu-ray copy this summer, in the bargain bin at Walmart no less, where it had apparently landed without so much as a single dignifying week in the local art house. I snickered a bit during one of the extras provided on the disc, a documentary called “Visualizing the Abyss: The Look of ‘High Life,’” wherein the film’s production design is referred to as “retro.” The idea, we’re told, is that the outer space journey taken in the film is so long, that it would have started when the technologies were roughly equivalent to that of the 1980s. Therefore, the ship’s main controls appear to be a couple of laptops on a table and much of the set resembles a giant pillow fort. This, perhaps, is some fanciful French in-joke, because by my estimation, a more accurate description of the sets would be “cheap.” The ship looks like a cardboard box, the kind of effect that would have seemed cheesy in the 50s, and the interiors are unremarkable as well, though not unconvincing. High Life is far removed from your typical big budget American sci-fi action blockbuster. It’s way more interesting than that. Filled with mesmerizing, often luscious, often grotesque and violent images, High Life is outlandish, disturbing, and in its own twisted way, beautiful.
Far from the usual heroic space travelers, the characters in Denis’ cardboard box are all prisoners. They’ve agreed to be government guinea pigs and have been sent, unwittingly, on a one-way trip to a black hole allegedly to harness its energy, all while under the watchful eye of geneticist, and fellow criminal, Dibs (Juliet Binoche), a sort of female Dr. Mengele running fertility experiments on the crew. Told in sometimes confusing flashbacks, the film begins near the end of the story as Monte (Robert Pattinson), the ship’s lone adult survivor, reluctantly bonds with a baby he’s recently learned is his own. Pattinson, ever the chameleon, is particularly striking in these scenes. Clothed in magenta prison jumper and shorn with an austere prison buzz daubed strikingly with a blonde shock in the front, the actor establishes real credibility in these scenes, completely connecting with the infant performer portraying his daughter. Despite some amateurish dialogue, their scenes together have a quiet and lovely authenticity and they help establish Monte as the strong and silent anchor for the rest of the crew.
Monte, we learn, at first through images and later through exposition, killed a friend as a youth over the death of his best friend, a dog. The crimes of the rest of the crew, who we meet in flashbacks, remain mysterious, except for that of Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the ship’s geneticist, a modern-day Medea who’s murdered her own family, including her two children. Add to this another eight or so crew members including a voluptuously sexual red-head the mentally unstable girl-woman Boyse (Mia Goth); a homesick married man (André Benjamin a.k.a. André 3000), a horny, tattoo-covered stud with a crazy look in his eyes (Ewan Mitchell), and a more sympathetically horny captain (Lars Eidinger), and various others. Forbid them any sexual contact except self-stimulation in a so-called “fuck box,” a dark, seedy-looking room equipped with stiletto-like dildo, that rather unpleasantly leaks fluids of a questionable nature. Confine them within the tight spaces of the ship and watch the sexual tensions explode.
The dark humor of all this is not lost on Denis, but she plays it straight. The contrast between the placid, sexless (is he gay?) Monte, who refuses to even masturbate for the doctor’s experiments, and the simmering teapot of repressed sexuality that is Dibs, is both discomforting and fun to watch. Binoche, a world-class, Oscar winning actress with enough memorable work in both French and American cinema to be rightfully called a legend, is utterly, shamelessly memorable in an outrageous role that’s in stark contrast to the more sophisticated and restrained women she often plays, most recently, in her films with Olivier Assayas. Her Dibs is cold and vile, yet strangely sympathetic, no small feat given the character’s crime. Her best scene, in which she desperately rapes the unconscious Monte, walks a fine line between the darkly humorous and the perversely pathetic. Still a great beauty at age 55, Binoche is still willing to risk looking unattractive and ridiculous for the sake of the script and we are, all of us, made better by it.
Denis, the veteran French filmmaker best known for her 1999 classic Beau Travail, has worked hard to put some real science in her film, consulting with physicists to get the details right, including a remarkably accurate depiction of a black hole that correctly predicted the appearance of the real black hole captured in the now world-famous photo created by scientists at The Event Horizon telescope Collaboration and released within days of the film’s U.S release. But it isn’t science, but rather people, Denis cares most about. And there’s simple, almost Buddhist, viewpoint at the heart of the film that seems to reject the basic human impulses of violence and sexuality for a more meditative existence with deeper human connections.
When, near film’s end, Monte rejects bringing a potentially contaminated puppy from a crewless second ship to his own, despite the pleading of his now teenage daughter Willow (Jessie Ross), we (and she) seem to understand it as a rejection of the past – both his and humanity’s: Dogs matter, but people matter more. It’s an evolution of character that’s far more compelling than Ad Astra’s empty father/son rhetoric. As Monte and Willow enter the black hole, they find themselves walking in a black space surrounded only by the bright yellow-orange light of the black hole’s event horizon. “Are you ready?” he asks her, as they step towards the light and the unknown. In Denis’ universe, evolution is internal. There’s no need for the alien-fostered evolution of Kubrick’s star child. Monte, through his own self-discipline, has entered his own private blackhole Nirvana.
Ad Astra: 69/100
High Life: 87/100