Ad Astra Takes Us On A Visually Stunning, If Muddled Voyage To The Stars

poster ad astra

Ad Astra is a new sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride who is assigned to a top-secret mission to Neptune. A few decades from now, humanity has gained a foothold in our solar system with bases on the Moon and Mars. Years earlier, McBride’s father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut, went to Neptune on a mission to find intelligent life beyond our system. However, the mission apparently failed as Earth lost contact with the elder McBride. At the start of Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”), mysterious power surges from Neptune engulf the Earth and threaten all life in the solar system. Roy McBride is tasked to establish contact with his father, who is believed to be alive and somehow causing the surges.

brad pitt as roy mcbride

This may sound like a fairly simple plot, but Ad Astra is more complex and thought provoking than one might think. Directed by James Gray, who directed the pensive The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is just as reflective as Gray’s previous film as it chronicles Roy McBride’s long journey to possibly reunite with his father. The film is certainly not an action-packed fest, but more of a slow burn that for the most part engages the mind. There are arresting sequences that grab attention, such as a thrilling moon rover chase sequence involving pirates, and a claustrophobic visit to a distant space lab. In between these scenes, we are left to ponder Roy McBride’s ambivalent feelings towards his long-lost father and his own failings in trying to live under the shadow of his father’s legacy. In some strange way, McBride’s reflections echo Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the visual look of the film evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the whole, Ad Astra is a mesmerizing watching experience. The space sequences are simply beautiful with magnificent special effects and photography. James Gray supposedly was insistent on making futuristic space travel as realistic as possible and it shows in this film. There isn’t any ludicrous technobabble and though humanity has expanded into the solar system, voyagers still contend with zero-g conditions and use rockets. The scenes on the Moon best echo 2001 in how commercialization and civilians make a voyage to the Moon feel a bit humdrum. It’s not gritty (that aesthetic is saved for McBride’s visit to Mars), but very average and comfortable as the Moon bases are littered with commercial properties like Applebee’s and D.H.L.

Clearly, the first half of Ad Astra is the most engaging as it presents us with a grounded travelogue of space travel in the future. But issues with the film’s plot and pace come up in the second half. The film requires constant attention, but it becomes a bit too ponderous and the payoff at the end doesn’t quite resonate, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross try to present an important message and an intense spiritual journey, but the delivery is muddled and the payoff feels anti-climatic. There isn’t anything wrong with their message about ourselves, but unlike the stunning visuals of the film, it doesn’t have much emotional impact. What lessens the film’s flaws, aside from the visuals, are Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance. This kind of film demands a certain type of actor that audiences will want to empathize with and Pitt fills the bill perfectly. Other supporting actors have small but memorable appearances throughout.

Mcbride at space elevator

Ad Astra is the kind of film that is meant to marinade after viewing it. Anyone hoping for an action film or a thriller are better off seeing Rambo: Last Blood or It: Chapter Two. Others who are seeking a cerebral experience, or a vehicle for inner reflection, or just want to see an unforgettable and plausible look at our future will appreciate Ad Astra.

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11’s 50th Anniversary

It may be all too easy to conveniently forget or dismiss the historic anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing given the current mess our world is in. It is also just as easy to get caught up in all the problems, both petty to serious, we face, from hateful political tweets to nuclear proliferation, from celebrity gossip to climate change. Yet, the fact remains that fifty years ago, humankind observed and celebrated its greatest technological feat with the first manned landing on our moon.

Of course, everyone knows of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., the second man to walk on the moon, and Michael Collins, the command module pilot of the Columbia, which stayed in lunar orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin descended to moon on the lunar module Eagle. Their accomplishment was truly spectacular and took great courage considering the dangers they faced with relatively untested and primitive (by today’s standards) technologies. Neil Armstrong was always an understated, low-key person who quickly disappeared from the spotlight after his feat. This is part of the reason why not many know how suitable he was for the mission. In his career, Armstrong displayed a calm veneer and quick-thinking skills that were needed in the Apollo 11 mission. Before Apollo 11, Armstrong used these skills to improvise and save his life during dangerous tests and would do so again as the Eagle approached its landing spot. The astronaut saw as they approached the site that it was not a suitable place to land the Eagle, so he used his piloting and navigational skills to quickly find a new location with precious seconds to spare before the module’s fuel ran out. The mission was that close to failing but thankfully it was a huge success which momentarily united all of humankind.

Apollo 11 was one of the most significant milestones in our collective history because with this feat humanity was no longer Earthbound. We are now on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species thanks to the mission, which truly was one small step, but an incredibly important one. This is vital because by traveling into space we are taking steps to prevent our extinction. Of course, landing on the moon was just the beginning and as of now it will take much more for us to become a true space-dwelling species.

One downside to the Apollo mission is that it was fueled back in the ’60s by the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was caught up in a struggle to get to the moon first, to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon by the end of the decade. And this was accomplished 50 years ago, but afterwards, both superpowers took their eyes off the ball. Instead of expanding upon the landing and establishing a lunar colony, both countries focused their space efforts much closer to home. As we made numerous trips to low Earth orbits to set up space stations and conduct experiments the public’s interest in the space effort quickly diminished. Many became downright dismissive and openly (and loudly) wondered what was the use of traveling to space when we had more pressing problems down on Earth.

While these critics have a legitimate point, they overlooked the long-range benefits of space travel and even the immediate ones. For example, after the Apollo program closed down in the ’70s, many of the technicians involved in the program eventually migrated to the computer field. Many of them were considered geniuses and many organizations involved with computers took advantage of this. They were able to use their expertise and knowledge to help drive the marvelous Computer Age that we live in. This is stunning when you consider that the computer that ran the Eagle spaceship was far weaker than any cellphone. As primitive as the computers were during the Apollo mission they paved the way for the computer renaissance today.

However, computers and other technological innovations are not the primary legacy of Apollo 11. Thanks to the efforts of the Apollo 11 astronauts and everyone involved, the imagination was fueled for many of today’s entrepreneurs who have an eye toward space. These include Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Robert T. Bigelow. They are actively improving and creating new space technologies such as the resuable Falcon 9 rocket–a true successor to the Apollo’s Saturn V, inflatable space habitats, and more. Private companies are now paving the way to fully return us not just to the moon but to Mars itself. So even though it may seem as if we had reached a dead end with the lunar landing 50 years ago, the fact is that there was merely a delay. We are on the cusp of the next great Space Age where the Space Race won’t be between nations but companies as they rush to reach the red planet. There will be mishaps and setbacks but in the long run these will be mere blips in our future history of being space dwellers.

Thus, 50 years later, Apollo 11 continues to impress and inspire countless of others who will carry forth our species into the stars. Collectively, we will always commemorate and celebrate this historic moment for our species because as Neil Armstrong himself famously said when he took his first step on the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Walter L. Stevenson and José Soto

Top 10 Films and TV Shows of 2018

This year had a splendid offering of memorable films and TV shows. We are truly living in a golden age of geekdom with so many films and TV shows to choose from. These are the best of 2018; keep in mind this list is purely subjective and if you have your own list, be sure to leave a comment.

Films

10. Incredibles 2:

incredibles 2

It took over a decade but it was worth the wait! Like the original film, Incredibles 2 delighted us and had us laughing with its family situations and high-octane superheroics.

9. Hereditary:

The creepiest horror film of the year unsettled us with its haunting imagery and scenes. This tale of demonic forces assaulting a fragile family will keep you up late into the night.

8. Ralph Wrecks the Internet:

This joyful sequel to Wreck-It Ralph takes the oversized and loveable video game titular character to new digital frontiers. His humorous journey into the Internet was fantastic to watch with all the puns and satires about the world wide web.

7. Black Panther:

black panther at wakanda

Marvel Studios delivered another stirring superhero film that was highlighted with its political/royal drama and was a genuine cultural phenomenon when it was released. Michael B. Jordan’s turned in a bravura performance as Killmonger, the bitter challenger to King T’Challa/Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) throne.

6. Solo: A Star Wars Story:

solo and chewie at bar

Too bad the backlash over The Last Jedi and other factors doomed this Star Wars spinoff film that explored Han Solo’s early days. It captured the adventurous spirit of Star Wars that was missing lately thanks to its adventurous tone, Ron Howard’s expert direction and inspired performances. This included Alden Ehrenreich who pulled off a near impossible task of emulating a younger version of our favorite space pirate.

5. Aquaman:

Aquaman and Mera

The DCEU’s sole superhero film of 2018 was bold, splashy, action-packed, outrageous (cue the octopus playing drums!), but most of all fun. Aquaman singlehandedly resurrected the DCEU with this sprawling epic.

Its bright color palate, sweeping underwater landscapes, and breakneck pace made it stand out from the other DCEU films with imagery that captured the spirit of Avatar and Star Wars. Aquaman proved that DC and Warner Bros. can deliver a popular and crowd-pleasing superhero movie just like their competitor.

4. A Quiet Place:

Director and star John Krasinski kept audiences petrified in their seats with this sci-fi/horror classic about a family living in an Earth overrun by voracious alien creatures that hunt by sound. The premise of the family not being able to make noise underlined the unbearable tension throughout the film.

At the same time, A Quiet Place was memorable because it endeared us to the family in the film as they struggled to survive such a situation.

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse:

The greatest animated film of the year was a true surprise given how little it was regarded when it was first announced. After all, this was not Disney who was behind this film. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse popped out immediately with unique animation that literally brought a comic book story to life.

However, its involving story about Spider-Man’s successor, Miles Morales, learning the ropes and struggling to live up to a legend just crushed it. Hands down, it’s one of the best Spider-Man films to date.

2. Ready Player One:

Director Steven Spielberg shows us that he still is the master of cinema with this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s book about a young man adventures in the virtual world that is bursting with countless pop culture references and Easter eggs. How many viewings will it take to spot them all?

Ready Player One is a loving ode to geek and gaming culture that respects and celebrates it. The film is also a noteworthy addition to Spielberg’s impressive library of genre films as it displayed many of his visual touches and directing techniques that catapulted Spielberg to prominence.

1. Avengers: Infinity War:

The culmination of ten years of the MCU was certainly an unforgettable epic. It captured the mood of those sweeping comic book epic storylines with its all-star cast of actors and characters that was any fanboy and fangirl’s dream come true.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo pulled off a miracle by keeping the pace smooth and intense while giving the heroes their own engaging moments. Any praise for Avengers: Infinity War is not complete without mentioning the chilling, menacing presence of the film’s villain, Thanos. Josh Brolin and the effects masters brought to life one of the greatest comic book film villains with an unforgettable mo-cap performance. More importantly Avengers: Infinity War presented a complex character study with Thanos’ mad quest to kill half the universe.

Honorable Mentions:

Annihilation, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Bumblebee, Deadpool 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Isle of Dogs, Rampage, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Venom, Upgrade

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The First Is Last As A Space Drama

The First, which started streaming on Hulu, could have been a great space drama about humanity facing the dangers of space travel head on. In this case, the story of the first manned mission of Mars. Unfortunately, The First never gets off the ground (pun intended) and should have been aborted before a single frame of film was shot.

Sean Penn stars as Captain Tom Hagerty, a veteran astronaut who was bumped from the first manned mission to the red planet, only to be later drafted to be its commander. The entire eight-episode series is about the preparation for the mission itself and it is a slow, tepid journey to get to the launch. Unlike other space dramas like the classic From the Earth to the Moon, very little time is spent on how humanity prepares for the next, great space adventure. Some lip service is paid on who gets chosen to be on the mission, assorted malfunctions and the political machinations undertaken by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the CEO of the private enterprise fronting the mission. Instead, The First bogs itself down with boring family drama.

What takes front and center in this series is the tedious relationship between Hagerty and his young adult daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who is a recovering drug addict. Hagerty’s attention is wasted on keeping tabs on his daughter, which threatens his capability of leading the mission. This is baffling. If this astronaut has so much emotional baggage why did Ingram pick him to lead a high-profile mission? We never get a sense that Hagerty is uniquely qualified. Sure, he was the first man to return to the moon since the ’70s, but it appears that Hagerty is himself a problem. Half the time, Penn looks like he just woke up from an all-night binge and after the early episodes, it is clear his heart and mind is not on the mission.

Not only is The First dull, but it is pretentious with lofty dialogue that no human being would actually say. There are numerous film-school-reject shots that don’t make sense such as scenes of cicadas emerging from the ground mixed in between overlong shots of characters looking off in the distance and ugly art images.

This is truly a shame because the pilot episode was interesting and followed the mode of what one would expect from a space drama. The production values are suitably realistic for a show taking place in the 2030s and the main theme score is truly inspiring. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there, especially when more and more time is wasted on Denise and her angst that belongs on another show.

If The First makes it to second season, it would be for the best if it focused on the drama of the mission itself and jettison all the junk family drama. Only then will it soar off the ground and captivate its viewers. Until then, watch the fictional Mars-missions series shown on Discovery and National Geographic. They’re more informative and entertaining.

 

Exploring The Ending Of Arrival

arrival-ship

WARNING: This article will contain huge spoilers about the alien contact film Arrival. Anyone who hasn’t seen it yet should skip what lies ahead….

What set Arrival apart from other sci-fi films about the First Contact scenario had to do with it’s ending, which upended the meaning of much of the film. Throughout Arrival, there were numerous flashbacks regarding the linguist Louise Banks and her young daughter Hannah. We witness Hannah being born, living her young life and dying from a disease. This was done to set up Louise as a tragic figure, but we learn late into the film that these sequences are actually flashforwards. We were actually seeing what happened to Louise Banks after the aliens (heptapods) left Earth.

So why were we seeing these glimpses into the future?

It all goes back to her attempts to communicate with the heptapods. The only way human and alien were able to communicate was through written language. The aliens’ language, which consists of a series of circular inkblots, was quite complex and to understand it, one had to think non-linear. This is because the heptapods do not perceive time as cause and effect like we do…they can see into the past and future. It’s why they came to Earth in the first place. As they reveal to Louise, they arrived to establish relations with us because the heptapods will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future. They had the foresight to see that they would need our help and we needed a jumpstart. Hence, their gift to us in the form of their language.

arrival-glass

With the language, a person will be able to perceive time in a non-linear way. This will have a profound effect on how we carry on our lives if we are able to accurately perceive the future. But is this possible?

In the film, it’s mentioned that in order to understand a language, the wiring of one’s brain, so to speak, has to be radically altered. Imagine if that happened when deciphering a language from a completely non-human species. But for humanity to completely understand the heptapods’ language, our minds would have to evolve. So how was Louise able to perceive time differently?

The answer is that she was altered by the heptapod, Costello, when she was brought into the aliens’ ship. It’s established in Arrival that the aliens inhabit an environment that isn’t Earthlike and do not even breath our air. Whenever human and alien communicated there was a glass barrier separating the two environments. However, when the situation turned dire in the final act as the Chinese military was about to attack the heptapods, Louise was brought into the aliens’ environment without an environmental suit. She couldn’t have survived in the inhospitable environment and the only way she could have existed was if they altered her physiology during the transit to their ship. Minutes after she meets Costello face to face she is able to fully see into the future and understands their written language without the aid of computer programs.

That is the true tragedy in Arrival’s ending. While Louise is able to prevent a war thanks to taking advantage of being able to perceive time differently, now she has the terrible foreknowledge of her doomed daughter. She is fully aware that she will give birth to daughter that will die at a young age. This brings up the question of predestination and fate. During Arrival’s ending, she could have made the choice to not let Hannah be born to spare her the suffering.

louise-and-ian

Instead, she gives in to fate and allows herself to love her colleague Ian Donnelly, the mysterious never-seen father of Hannah in the flashforwards. Thus, she sets forth her predestiny and Hannah’s, as well. Why do this? Why not use her ability to find a way to cure Hannah? Perhaps, she was afraid of the Butterfly Effect unraveling the initial contact with the heptapods that could have doomed humanity. It is strongly hinted in the film, that this was why Louise and Ian broke up. This just adds more to the tragic element. Louise knows the pain that awaits her, yet she makes the personal sacrifice for the sake of preserving the future and humanity and in doing so, Louise Banks becomes an even more heroic figure in Arrival.

Lewis T. Grove