‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience

Ad Astra movie poster

The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.

Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).

Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.

“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.

Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.

Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.

Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.

But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.

Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.

I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.

As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”

“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”

I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.

Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.

It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Advertisements

Exclusive Interview with ‘Apollo 11’ Director Todd Douglas Miller

Apollo 11 poster

For many of us, the events of the Apollo 11 have long since been relegated to the annals of history. Back in July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were propelled into outer space to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 national goal of landing a man on the Moon and then returning him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. Those who were alive back then cannot and will not forget this incredible event, but many who were born after it occurred observe it as a mere footnote in history which has long since passed them by.

This historic event was revisited recently in Damien Chazelle’s film “First Man,” but now we have the documentary “Apollo 11” which takes audiences right back to 1969 when the mission took place. Described as a “cinematic event 50 years in the making,” it has been crafted from a newly discovered treasure trove of 65mm footage and 11,000 hours on uncatalogued audio recordings. The end result is a motion picture which makes you feel as though you are watching America’s first flight to the Moon as if it just happened yesterday, and it is a movie which demands to be seen on the biggest screen near you.

“Apollo 11” was directed by Todd Douglas Miller whose previous films include “Dinosaur 13” which observed the discovery of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found, and “Gahanna Bill” which chronicles the life of Bill Withrow; a middle-aged, mentally handicapped man. I spoke with Miller about the making of “Apollo 11,” and he discussed why no narration or interviews were included in the documentary, the process of restoring much of the footage, and of how the discovered audio proved to be as informative as the visuals on display.

Ben Kenber: I love how the documentary opens with the image of the rocket and the capsule being slowly moved out to the launching area. It’s a fascinating way to start as we are reminded of the immense size of the rocket and also, more importantly, what humanity is capable of creating. What made you start the documentary with this image?

Todd Douglas Miller: One of the first images that we saw when we were doing some test scanning of the original film reel was the rocket being taken out on the crawler to pad 39A. It was actually upside down because the reel was wound backwards. So, we are looking at it and the way it comes off the scanner you only see an image every three or four seconds. And then we go, wait a minute, we know this is large-format but this is actually taken from a helicopter too, so we immediately put it up on the big screen in the theater and our jaws were just on the floor. I knew that I wanted to start this film to put the audience right in the moment, and I just felt like what better moment to see this giant 300+ feet tall Saturn V rocket and this amazing machine which was created to move it. It was really a no-brainer to start the movie there.

BK: I agree. Also, the resolution of the images you have to work with here is just breathtaking.

TDM: Yeah. Originally, we had set out to just rescan all the 16 and the 35mm film which we ultimately did. But when we dealt with those materials, some of them had been used over the decades, a shot here in a shot there, so there was a fair amount of clean and prep before we actually scanned them. With the 65mm, it was just so pristine, we really treated it with kid gloves in the color correction and the conform of it. It was just something that the technicians who were working with it on the scanners, they had just never seen anything like that: the condition and the way it moves through the machinery. Important to note too, the scanner that was developed for this was a prototype scanner. There is only one in existence created for just this project, but it actually moved the film through a series of air pressures. There was never anything physically touching the film itself. It’s a real testament to the guys who developed the technology created to handle it.

BK: In addition to all the footage which was discovered, there was a wealth of audio recordings recovered as well. Which give you more information and more help in making this documentary, the video or the audio?

TDM: That’s a great question. I would say if I had to pick because I am a visual guy, seeing the large-format film obviously informs some of the edit decisions as far as the eye candy shots go. But certainly, from a story perspective and how I want the shape the narrative of the mission, there was no better resource then the audio. We knew about all the air to ground audio and all the onboard audio that existed. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were in the command module while they were on, let’s say, the dark side of the moon and they weren’t in communication with the earth, they flipped on a recorder so we have recordings that were taken on board, and there were also on-board recordings from the lunar landing and some other key moments during the mission. But we didn’t know of and what landed in our lap was 18,000 hours of Mission Control audio that was recorded at Mission Control on 30 tracks of audio in the front room, an additional 30 tracks of audio in the back room, and 11,000 hours of the 18,000 hours was statistically Apollo 11. It was a real mishmash. It has been digitized by a team down at the University of Texas in Dallas. It was going through NASA exports control. We got it fairly early so we could rifle through it and kind of help with the effort to transcribe everything and see if there was anything questionable in there or anything we can utilize in the film. It turned out it became our main resource for shaping the structure of this story that we wanted to focus on this because there were things in there that had never been heard before, or there were lines in there that might have not ended up on the air to ground transmissions that were cleaner than this 30-track audio recording.

BK: This documentary has no narration, but it really doesn’t need it because you can tell everything that is going on. Was it always your intention to not include any narration in this documentary, or was it something which came up during the editing process?

TDM: Yeah. One thing that you discover when you listen to all the mission audio, NASA broadcast what is basically the flight directors’ loop. So, if you hear any of the four flight directors (Gene Krantz, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Gerald D. Griffin and Glynn Lunney) talking with the other guys and also the flight capsule communicator in direct communication with the capsule, that gets broadcast.  But a lot of times it’s just a lot of technical jargon and numbers. They are inputting data into their local computer, the command module and the lunar module. So, what’s great for the average viewer or for a filmmaker was there was also four public affairs officers stationed in Mission Control that were of functioning as narration for the general audience that was listening via TV or the radio and would kind of dumb it down for people like me. You could get kind of a blow-by-blow, it’s almost like watching a live sportscast, of exactly what’s going on. From a filmmaking perspective it was really great that they so happened to have the voices of airline pilots. They were just this really calming influence and it certainly translated very well into utilizing them in the guise of the film.

BK: I was also really fascinated with how fast the spacecraft goes. It’s frightening when you realize what the velocity is. The scene where the astronauts land on the moon is almost terrifying because they are descending so fast and I found myself wanting to yell at the screen, hit the brakes!

TDM: (Laughs) Yeah, it was really fun to deal with all that telemetry and hours and hours spent with the consultants trying to figure out different angles and the velocities and approximate altitudes for different things. It really puts in perspective the technical accomplishments in this year expertise that these astronauts had to fly these machines and land them safely. It’s really incredible.

BK: “Apollo 11” deals with some very iconic moments, and yet it all feels like we are watching this event for the first time.

TDM: Thanks for saying that. That was definitely the intent. We joked that from the beginning we wanted this to feel like “Dunkirk” in space. It’s an analogy in that if you think about just being dropped into a situation, even though you know how it ends, that it’s definitely going to take you for a ride just by the sheer imagery involved. Some of the imagery that was captured, whether it was Buzz Aldrin operating the 16mm camera during the landing or Michael Collins during the lunar liftoff when the lunar module was coming off the surface of the moon towards the command module to dock, those two scenes we wanted them to be unbroken shots because they are two of the most iconic things ever captured on celluloid as far as I’m concerned. I think that too often it gets kind of missed on people how special that imagery really is when you just see it in bits and pieces or sped up, or it has too much flash to it. To see it as it was, it had an emotional impact on me for sure.

BK: The film score by Matt Morton helps to heighten the more dangerous aspects of the mission. Every once in a while, we are reminded of how dangerous space travel can be just as were while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” What was it like working with Matt on the score?

TDM: Well I have known Matt since we were kids, and he’s my oldest collaborator. Typically, the way we work is we do post scores so I’ll temp in music to a team and then give it to him, and we talked about it and then he goes off and does his magic. With this, he told me very early on even when we were in the research phase of the film that he wanted to do a period score with modern composition and I said, what does that mean? (Laughs) He said I actually want to go out and only use instruments that were made pre-1969, one of which is a Moog synthesizer. Moog at the time was reissuing their 1968 synthesizer. They only made 25 of them and he got, I don’t know, number 13 or 14. I was scared at first but I didn’t tell them. I trust him but he didn’t know how to play one, and it’s a monster thing. It takes up an entire wall. It’s huge. He would go off and give me these hours and hours of these Moog compositions, so we ended up pre-scoring most of the film that way and it was just an absolutely wonderful way to work. It is one in which we, moving forward, want to do more of. It’s really just a testament to Matt and his skills as a composer and his versatility too. I’m just lucky that I get to work with him. I think his skill set as a composer is really in the spotlight and this one, and I’m just really proud of the work he did.

BK: “Apollo 11” is dedicated to Al and Theo. Can you tell me about those two people?

TDM: Al was Al Reinert, and he was a filmmaker. He made of film in the 80’s called “For All Mankind.” We became friends. I reached out to him when we did a short film which was really a primer for this film called “Last Steps” about Apollo 17. We just really hit it off, and he was working on a space themed film. We were doing some resource sharing and I was really looking forward to sharing this with him. Unfortunately, he passed away not too long ago before he could see the film. It’s one of the things I regret most, not showing him an early cut. Al was also the screenwriter on “Apollo 13,” and his films had at impact on me as a filmmaker. But I’m also lucky enough to call him a friend and develop a personal relationship with him towards the end of his life. Theo is Theo Kamecke, and he also passed away during the making of our film. Theo was the director of a film that’s become a cult classic among space fans called “Moonwalk One,” and a lot of the imagery that’s in our film “Apollo 11” was created for “Moonwalk One.” He was known as a really good editor too, and he actually worked on an Academy Award-winning short film called “To Be Alive!” which was produced by the Francis Thompson Company which ended up producing “Moonwalk One.” There was going to be a contingent of myself, National Archives and Maps and some of the team were going to show him some of things we discovered, and unfortunately he passed away a few weeks before this happened. So, we dedicated the film to those two filmmakers.

BK: You are known for another documentary you made previously called “Dinosaur 13.” I was curious, between that and “Apollo 11,” which was the tougher documentary to make?

TDM: That’s an interesting question. I think in terms of sheer scope, this was more difficult. We knew from the very beginning the immense responsibility we had. The fact we were transporting priceless materials up the I-95 corridor from (Washington) D.C. to New York led to a lot of sleepless and restless nights. We shot a lot on “Dinosaur 13,” but the narrative kind of set itself, and we were purely focused on just the film. With this, it wasn’t just the film. It was also the preservation and curation of all these materials that we were generating, and also the ones we were utilizing. We just felt a real pressure to get it right, so I would have to vote for this one.

BK: I imagine it’s a lot more challenging to get the details right something like this especially when you have this treasure trove of material which was left unseen for far too long.

TDM: Yeah, and I am so proud of all the work that everybody did on this, and I am proud of the work everybody did on “Dinosaur 13.” That was definitely a big project to pull that all together. We used a lot of archival material on that as well and filmed as much as we did. With “Apollo 11,” we didn’t shoot it ourselves. We had the responsibility to honor a lot of these filmmakers who are now deceased.

“Apollo 11” opens exclusively in IMAX on March 1st for one week only, and it will open in theaters everywhere on March 8th. If you can, see it in IMAX. It is an extraordinary cinematic experience.

‘WALL-E’ Remains one of Pixar’s Greatest Masterpieces

Wall E poster

WALL-E” was directed by Andrew Stanton who directed one of the very best Pixar movies, “Finding Nemo.” It takes place in the very distant future when Earth is no longer inhabitable due to uncontrollable pollution, and everyone lives in spaceships. In the midst of all this pollution and garbage is WALL-E whose name is an acronym which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class. There are many like him, but this particular load lifter has long since developed a quirky personality. While he compacts waste into squares, he also collects things like Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cubes, and parts from similar models which he can use as replacement parts on his body if anything falls apart. He lives a very lonely life with no one to converse with except a cockroach whom he lets wander around his home aboard a broken-down construction vehicle, and he is always watching scenes from the movie musical “Hello Dolly.”

Then one day, he is visited by a large spaceship which a makes a very loud landing on the barren planet. Released from it is a probe named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and after some dangerous close encounters, WALL-E earns her trust and friendship. Things between them, however, gets tested when EVE’s mothership comes back, and WALL-E hangs on for dear life as the ship heads into space and towards a ship where what is left of humanity inhabits. What happens when these two board the ship will eventually change the course of everyone’s lives and the way they live.

Just when I thought Pixar couldn’t top itself, it succeeds in doing so yet again. The animation in “WALL-E” is predictably brilliant, but now it’s getting to where I can’t tell what’s animated and what’s real. The Rubik’s cube WALL-E and EVE play with looks very much like the real thing, and the attention to detail in these is almost frightening in its precision.

But the one thing that really makes Pixar movies so damn good is the stories filmmakers come up with, and the characters they create are ever so memorable. WALL-E’s design does remind me of Number 5, a.k.a. Johnny 5, from “Short Circuit,” as he is every bit as quirky as this character from the 1980’s. Pixar also takes a lot of risks by having this movie be devoid of dialogue for the first half hour. I imagine this would freak out other studios, but not Pixar. The fact there is no dialogue shows how good Stanton is in showing things without spelling them out to us.

“What are words for when no one listens anymore?”

“Do you hear me? Do you care?”

-Missing Persons

“WALL-E” is undeniably cute without having to become incredibly manipulative, and this is quite an accomplishment considering how many movies for kids can easily fall into such a trap. Pixar is the equivalent these days of what the Muppets were to me in 1980’s. Their movies appeal to both kids and adults, and it is great to see anyone in Hollywood making motion pictures which succeed in doing just that.

When “WALL-E” moves to the spaceship hovering just outside of the Milky Way galaxy, the movie becomes even more amazing on a visual level. The moment where we see WALL-E hanging on for dear life outside of the spaceship and touching the rings of Saturn is a beautiful moment in a movie full of them. The spaceship he and EVE end up on is called the Axiom, and all its passengers are obese people who sit and move all day long in chairs because being in space for so long has robbed them of their bone density. Now this is a movie which doesn’t hide from the horrors of being a coach potato.

WALL-E and EVE are machines, but you end up caring for them regardless of this fact. They make the perfect couple even if one is more advanced than the other. The heart of the movie is how they come together and of the changes they inadvertently make in the realm of humanity.

WALL-E is voiced by Ben Burtt, and he is responsible for some of the most well-known sound effects in movie history like the lightsabers from “Star Wars” as well as the sound of that gigantic boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Burtt can now add this character to his great volume of work with pride. The character itself manages to convey so much through the use of sound and gestures. Whenever WALL-E tilts his mechanical eyes, he can easily go from emotion to emotion, and his voice adds to this as well.

EVE is the perfect match for WALL-E as they are an example of how the old and the more advanced can make the saying of opposites attract all the more valid. Beautiful in her sleekness and with two blue eyes to make her emotions all the more real, EVE is a brilliantly thought out character (and a little too trigger happy for her own good). The moments when these two machines connect are beautiful, and it gets you right in the heart in a way which does not feel the least bit manipulative (thank god for that).

When “WALL-E” gets on board the Axiom, it is a wonderful jab at how we humans have allowed ourselves to let technology overwhelm us to where it does all the work we should be doing ourselves. Laziness and complacency are far too easy to achieve when you have someone or something else doing everything for you. As a result, everyone on the Axiom is always in a chair. Exercise is not a priority, and being in outer space for so long has resulted in their bones almost disappearing. This is something NASA has to think about before they even think about sending astronauts to Mars. When the people of the ship rise against the technology holding them back, it’s a fantastic moment which cannot be easily forgotten.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “WALL-E” other than it’s another home run for the folks at Pixar. I look forward to whatever they do next year and the year after that. It is far and away one of the best movies of 2008, and it is now the one to beat in the summer movie season. For those attempting to do so, I wish you the best of luck because you are going to need it.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ryan Gosling Flies to the Moon in ‘First Man’ Trailer

First Man first poster

After getting all musical with “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” Oscar winning director Damien Chazelle now travels into outer space with “First Man.” Based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen, it stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man ever to set foot on the moon, and it depicts the years leading up to his mission aboard Apollo 11. With this movie, Chazelle appears to be stepping outside his comfort zone as “First Man” does not look at all like a musical, and it represents his first directorial effort where he is working from a screenplay he did not write.

From the outset, this trailer looks amazing as the visuals it shows us are stunning, and this makes me believe the filmmakers really did their research here as this is not a story you can portray without any realism. Seeing Armstrong travel into the atmosphere and beyond is exhilarating, and the moment where the hatch is closed on the Apollo 11 capsule as the crew are left alone in darkness with only their thoughts and the sound of their own breathing is enough to illustrate their isolation. While those who watched breathlessly on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong made that “one small step for man” and felt very much a part of this amazing mission, I imagine he felt like one of the loneliest people in the universe even with the eyes of the world on him.

At the same time, I wonder how “First Man” will compare to other films which have captured an astronaut’s journey into outer space in unforgettable ways. The first film which comes to my mind is Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” still his best work to date. Howard took the events of this particular space mission which we all knew the outcome of, and he turned it into a most riveting cinematic experience that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. Furthermore, Howard filmed his actors working in a reduced gravity aircraft to realistically depict the weightlessness astronauts experience in outer space. Did Chazelle do the same? Well, we will eventually find out.

Then there is “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s cinematic adaptation of the late Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction novel about the test pilots chosen to be part of Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight in America. I still have vivid memories of seeing this movie as a kid when it came out back in 1983, and the scene where the capsule containing John Glenn (played by Ed Harris) descended into the atmosphere like a meteor remains forever burned into my consciousness. Can Chazelle match the attention Kaufman paid to even smallest historical details?

And let us never forget Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” in which he made us see the real perils of being in outer space to where James Cameron had to admit someone made a truly realistic film on this subject before he did. For those who watched this Oscar-winning film and remembered its opening titles which exposed us to certain facts about outer space, we could not walk out of the theater and say we did not know what it is like to be up there.

So, while this trailer shows us how “First Man” looks to be very promising, I wonder if can stand up to those three movies as each set the bar high for filmmakers in capturing the reality of outer space and space travel. Well, we will all find out if it does when it is released on October 12, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

‘Gravity’ is the Ultimate Outer Space Movie

Gravity movie poster

I remember being fascinated and terrified by outer space movies when I was a young boy. Seriously, I kept getting vertigo when I saw all those stars shining brightly to where I was afraid I would fall into space and be lost forever. Of course, back then I still had a lot to learn about gravity. It’s been a long time since an outer space movie gave me this kind of sensation. The last one was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” which, when it came out in 1995, was perhaps the most realistic motion picture about life in space and of how dangerous it can be. But now that same sensation has come back in an exhilarating rush with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which may very well be the greatest movie about life in outer space I have ever seen.

“Gravity” is an amazing movie, just amazing. It left me speechless with its amazing visual effects and the tour de force performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and it made me feel like I was right up there in outer space with them both. The movie opens with the following:

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

Life in space is impossible

For 90 minutes, Cuarón never lets you forget this as we watch astronauts Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) struggle to survive after their space shuttle is destroyed by debris from a satellite. From there, they are floating in space with little oxygen and very few options. It may sound like a thin plot for a movie, but it’s more than enough to make “Gravity” one of the most nail biting films to sit through in some time.

I almost don’t want to know how the special effects were accomplished for fear the film’s magic will forever be ruined for me. “Gravity” reminds you of how great going to the movies can be as it sucks you right in to a world many of us have never seen up close. Cuarón shows the inherent dangers of space as well as the sheer beauty of it, and there’s no beating the view of planet Earth hundreds of miles above its surface.

Cuarón, just as he did with “Children of Men,” gives us truly brilliant scenes which look like they were all done in one shot. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how he managed to keep the camera rolling for such a long period of time. “Gravity” starts in space and pretty much ends there, and it’s the lack of gravity which makes the film seem like a new kind of roller coaster ride. I bet a number of audience members will get motion sickness while watching this movie as they’ll be struggling to find their center of balance just like Bullock does when she becomes untethered from the space shuttle. I remember all those trailers for horror movies like “Dawn of the Dead” which said the theater had barf bags available for those who needed them. Well, “Gravity” is proof movies don’t have to inhabit the horror genre for you to need a barf bag. Anyway, that’s more information than you need to know.

But as technically brilliant as “Gravity” is, it never forgets the human element which other filmmakers don’t pay as much attention to. We come to care deeply about the characters Clooney and Bullock play because they are not just a couple of stereotypical astronauts spouting clichéd dialogue. They are flesh and blood human beings with needs and desires, and they need each other to survive. Seeing them tumble through space will make you appreciate the brakes you have on your car.

Clooney rarely, if ever, lets us down as an actor, and he is perfectly cast as the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. He immediately gives the sense Matt has been to outer space countless times without having to point it out. From start to finish, Clooney is the calm center in the middle of the storm, and he gives the movie the positive energy it needs. Even as things get worse, he gives Dr. Stone a reason to keep on going.

But when all is said and done, “Gravity” really belongs to Bullock. She may still wonder if she deserved her Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but after watching her here, it’s clear she did, and she may be getting another one. Bullock gives the performance of her life as she reveals her character’s inner struggles which illustrate how there’s more going on with her than just trying to stay alive. The more we learn about Dr. Stone, the more we see this is not so much a movie about a woman lost in space as it is a woman trying to escape the darkness which has engulfed her soul.

Bullock can just draw you into a scene with her eyes which easily reveals much of her character’s inner torment as her oxygen continues to run out. I’ve always admired her as an actress, and her roles in “Demolition Man” and “Speed” showed her to be an unforgettable talent. In recent years, we have seen her do an endless number of romantic comedies, so it feels rare to see her in a dramatic film. But Bullock is so enthralling to watch here, and there is not a single false note to be found in her performance.

I don’t think it’s too much to say Cuarón is a magician when it comes to making a movie. He gave us an enchanting childlike vision of the world with “A Little Princess,” a marvelous coming of age story with “Y Tu Mamá También,” the first truly great Harry Potter movie with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and one of the more unique dystopian science fiction movies of recent years with “Children of Men.” From one film to the next, he has given us astonishing visions which have us in awe over what he can accomplish. Cuarón leaves you with a strong sense of wonder with “Gravity,” and it’s a quality seriously lacking in most movies these days.

Cuarón is also aided tremendously by a strong creative team which includes his son Jonás who co-wrote the screenplay with him, Steven Price who composed the movie’s hypnotic score, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes space look as beautiful and inhospitable in equal measure, and David Heyman who makes this his first film as a producer outside of the “Harry Potter” franchise. All have come together to create something which redeems our collective hope in the possibility of cinema.

“Gravity” demands to be seen in a movie theater and, yes, I’m going to say it, in 3D. Few film going experiences have been as enthralling as this one, and it is not to be missed. Thank you Cuarón for this film and reaffirming what can be accomplished in Hollywood today. But more importantly, thanks for creating a movie which gave me the sensation of being in outer space I used to have as a child.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Interstellar’ Takes Us on an Outer Space Journey Like Few Others Can

Interstellar movie poster

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a film which demands to be seen on the biggest screen nearest you. Like “Gravity,” seeing at home on television will not have the same effect as seeing it in a darkened theater, and that’s even if certain people around you forget to turn off their cell phones (doesn’t anyone ever learn?). Whether or not you think “Interstellar” is Nolan’s best film, you can certainly say it is his riskiest and most ambitious to date as he combines elements from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” and even Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” to make a most enthralling space adventure for us to experience.

“Interstellar” takes place in a not too distant future when Earth is unable to sustain humanity as crops are constantly ravaged by blight, dust storms keep laying waste to towns everywhere, and teachers have changed school textbooks to make children believe the Apollo moon landings were faked (blasphemy). In the middle of all this is farmer, widower, and retired astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his days tending to his farm and raising his son and daughter with the help of his father-in-law Donald (the always dependable John Lithgow). Cooper keeps going about his business but still takes the time to indulge his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in her curiosities about outer space and the ghost she believes is haunting her bedroom.

One of those curiosities ends up leading Cooper and Murph to a secret NASA space installation out in the middle of nowhere where they meet Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine) who informs them humanity will not survive for much longer. However, scientists have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn, and this presents the possibility of new planets for humans to inhabit. Cooper volunteers to pilot the experimental space shuttle Endurance into the wormhole, and he is joined by a crew of three as well as a couple of multi-purpose robots on a mission which will take several years to complete. But the mission also means Cooper must leave his family behind, and this ultimately devastates Murph who begs him not to go. Cooper promises Murph he will return once the mission is complete, but this may be a promise he might not be able to keep.

I don’t want to reveal much else of what happens in “Interstellar” as it is full of surprises, and it helps to come into this movie free of expectations and knowing only so much about it. We all love his “Dark Knight” films and have been following his work ever since he made his breakthrough with “Memento,” but this is really Nolan at his most emotionally open and, dare I say, sentimental. Almost nothing he has made previously compares to what he has given us here.

The movie does take a while to achieve liftoff (pun intended), and I know many have complained about the “sluggish” pacing in the first half. The way I see it, I admired how Nolan took his time with the story as many other filmmakers would have been pushing to get into outer space a lot sooner. These days we are in such a hurry to get everywhere and nowhere, and cable channels like IFC are content to speed through the end credits of a movie as if none of the hundreds of crew members who worked on it ever mattered. It’s nice we get to know these characters to where they have enough depth which makes us want to follow them on their journey to where no one has gone before.

I also liked how “Interstellar” deals with real science and doesn’t go out of its way to heedlessly disregard the laws of physics and gravity. Granted, there’s a lot of technobabble dialogue here which is at times hard to decipher and makes certain scenes a little confusing, but considering how much work Nolan and his fellow collaborators (which includes noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) put into researching space travel, this movie does have the feeling of plausibility throughout. We still may be years away from the kind of space travel presented here, but Nolan and company make you believe it will become a reality at some point.

Along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan captures some exceptionally beautiful images as Cooper and company seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of the shots are bound to remind viewers of “2001,” and Kubrick’s classic film is certainly a huge influence on the story. Still, Nolan takes us on a journey which feels surprisingly unique to others captured on celluloid recently and previously.

At this point, it should go without saying that McConaughey is on a roll. When he first made his breakthrough in “A Time to Kill,” many were heralding him as the next Paul Newman when they should have just let him be Matthew McConaughey. This led him to star in a number of dopey romantic comedies which were far beneath him and his fellow co-stars, and many quickly lost faith in him. However, the last few years have seen him turn in one remarkable performance after another in “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His work in “Interstellar” is remarkable and heart wrenching as he watches videos of his children who are growing up without him, and he grieves over the things he has missed out on.

Anne Hathaway, who previously worked with Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises,” turns in a strong performance as Amelia (as in Earhart?) Brand, an astronaut and scientist whose heart threatens to get in the way of her duties as a scientist when hard choices have to be made. David Gyasi is also very good as physicist Romilly, and time proves to be a real burden for him throughout the movie. As for Wes Bentley who plays geographer Doyle, he is underutilized here as he has little to do other than spout off a lot of technobabble, and his character never gets much in the way of development.

But one of the best performances to be found in “Interstellar” comes from Jessica Chastain who plays the older version of Murph. Still resentful of her father for leaving, she channels her anger into her own work with NASA as she works with Professor Brand to bring him back. Even as the film threatens to be a little ridiculous with answers that may have been better left to the imagination, Chastain keeps you hooked into her character’s quiet desperation to find her father and save the world to where you are begging for these two to reunite sooner than later.

Another collaborator of Nolan’s who really challenges himself here is composer Hans Zimmer who has given us some of the most exciting music scores in the last few years. With “Interstellar,” Zimmer abandons the usual thrilling bombast of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for something more spiritual and Phillip Glass-sounding. His music acts as a requiem for the wonders and perils of voyaging through space and of the solitude humans are forced to endure when stuck in another galaxy. You can usually notice the Zimmer sound in each film score he does, but his work here sounds so remarkably different from what he has done in the past.

This movie does have its flaws, and there are moments towards the end which strain credibility to where things threaten to become laughable, but its strengths eventually overcome its weaknesses by a large measure. Just when it looks like the plot will go off the rails in an M. Night Shyamalan way, it doesn’t, and it speaks to how deeply Nolan feels about the story and what it implies.

In the end, “Interstellar” is not another science fiction movie about astronauts looking for little green men (it would have been a disaster if it did). It’s about the power of love and how it can transcend both time and space no matter where you are. Regardless of the laws of physics and gravity, love carries on from one galaxy to the next and can never be easily conquered. I came out of this movie happy to know that, even in the deep, dark and silent void of outer space, love can remain constant.

For the record, I saw “Interstellar” at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in IMAX 70mm. I am more than convinced this is the best way to see it, and it also represents one of the last chances for all of us to see a movie projected on film. I’m sure it looks great in digital, but film still works best for Nolan.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *