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2 (out of 4)
The contemporary cinematic space race has been in full sprint since 2013 when Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity became the first in a line of comparably ambitious affairs continuing with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Damien Chazelle’s First Man. It’s not that director James Gray is exactly late to the cosmos-obsessed blockbuster party but his final efforts, after delayed release dates and a lengthy post-production, are so compromised, disimpassioned and disappointingly dim the movie fails to serve as the truly anti-sensationalist sci-fi fare we've been sorely missing. Though even before I saw Ad Astra, it was evident how little the project had to lend to the genre's revival.
Sure, Gray maneuvered through his early career with numerous crime dramas only to swap that alcove for his recent pair of historical features – the hushed poetry of The Immigrant and the Amazonian adventure epic The Lost City of Z. Ad Astra adheres to similar father/son dynamics of Gray's last film not to mention themes weighing the toll of legacy and levying critiques of both archetypal masculinity and Manifest Destiny-esque conquest.
However everything so supple and honorably old-fashioned about Gray's 20th century odyssey doesn't equivalently benefit his futuristic one. Even without some god awful narration – which feels tiresome, tacked on and otherwise clumsy – the film is an impotent slog despite principled intentions, confusing every one of its pedestrian attempts at existential investigation for something Kubrickian or at least likewise distant and new. Many have likened Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is a fairly insulting comparison to draw between a perennial classic and a modern snooze. Rather than draw out those parallels, all I'll say is Tommy Lee Jones is no Brando and the epic journey of disappointment has a quarter of the introspection and even less odious beauty.
Expectations of galactic intrigue may have misled the average moviegoer but I was one to anticipate some mind-numbing slowness from Ad Astra knowing the plot would venture through the vaguely immigrated and colonized solar system. But even as one who never associates the word 'boring' with any kind of moviegoing, this film is painfully tedious and emotionally dormant. Sometimes that can be my exact cup of tea – an underplayed and aged near-future, as in Blade Runner or Children of Men, can elaborate on purposeful global predictions as easily as it implements stirring escapist stimulation.
A mundane, gloomy space voyage to Neptune could be wonderful if paced out properly, but with certain swells of action akin to Gravity's technical flourishes, the clip of the space voyage through daddy issues takes a plain plot and makes its dull to feel out as well as think about. Whether it's Brad Pitt's character sneaking onto a rocket mid-takeoff only to murder everyone onboard or detours with deadly lab monkeys, there's minimal intelligence to discover in Ad Astra in any sense.
And it can't be emphasized enough: not a single sentence of Pitt’s inner voice-over improves any given scene – even when we're blessed with actual dialogue the utilitarian drudgery and the emotive outbursts are equally cheesy. There's even an underused Liv Tyler as an ex-wife seen through stodgy flashbacks just to hammer down the customary melodramatics of the script.
If it weren’t for Hoyte van Hoytema’s lovely Roger Deakins-inspired cinematography – the gifted director of photography trades his Interstellar expertise for a visual scheme ripped right from Blade Runner 2049 – Ad Astra would be agonizing. There’s no shame in a film being the product of multiple, rather pronounced past influences, but Gray’s film is vastly inferior to every one of them and drawing from so many cinematic benchmarks eventually feels more like pastiche than inspiration. In theory this movie was designed to please me by way of old-fashioned genre storytelling and spectacle, but every modern insert – hasty editing, bisexual lighting, set piece interludes – sully such a possibly striking and pensive sci-fi fable. The mostly meditative film feels ripped apart by the simple conflict of studio prerequisites and artistic intent.
Pitt – an actor you can’t believe burned so bright in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just a month or two ago and will likely secure his first deserved Academy win for such a surefire supporting role – would have been a monotone bummer to see Ad Astra through even without his torturous internal monologues. Drawn on the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra, or "through struggles to the stars," Gray's film has all the conditions for classic science fiction filmmaking, but its minor victories just aren't worth trudging through so much preceding discomfort.
3 (out of 4)
It’s no small thing to make America sit through a three-hour movie, let alone one half of a supernatural clown story. Stephen King’s gargantuan bedside table paperweight has become the centerpiece of a madman’s prolific paperback output and, for the sake of cinematic clarity, the nonlinear, cocaine-fueled coming-of-age creeper has been severed into halves. The second and final portion of It is handily structured, pleasingly grotesque and thoughtfully cast – Chapter Two also has neat practical and visual effects, nasty (if at times oh so cheap) frights and a bargain bin of relatable humor courtesy of Bill Hader. In the philistine domain of horror sequels, this is one of the most justified of its kind in terms of both coasting off a former film’s success and in the knotty abbreviation of a daunting adaptation.
Chapter One separately had its own nostalgic simplicity as well as direct genre conventions and the latter part of the tale should be held accountable for the same indiscretions: jump scares aplenty, half-baked (if self-aware) conclusions, not to mention every cliché and oddity each screen version has inherited from King’s own inscrutable kookiness. Both installments are some of the highest grossing horror films in history, which suggests things will not exceed a certain threshold of weirdness for today's eyeballs – but even abridged, King’s peculiarities have exited the page and provided the sort of monstrous entertainment that lives up to It’s horribly big reputation.
So yeah, I admit I didn’t read the 1000+ page novel – I didn’t even make it all the way through The Shining and Kubrick's variation is one of my favorite films of all time. Neither It movie will become as iconic as other classic realizations – Brian De Palma’s Carrie, John Carpenter’s Christine, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me and Misery – but damn if the pair of films in question aren't scary by the masses’ standards and at least a few cuts above the garbage enticing typical audiences to flock in fear. My personal lack of refresher to the events of Chapter One made the collective amnesia of the Losers all the more relevant, the evolution of their childhood phobias more cogent and film's unavoidable repetition not only forgivable but satisfying. And the absence of the original film's camaraderie left the modified relationships full of apprehension and confusion – the borderline wistful crowd-pleasing of the former film is exchanged for disillusionment and unshakable unease.
If there are mistakes in adapting King’s unconscious insanity, I am gladly none the wiser – and I know about the space turtles and tween orgies and whatever else. It Chapter Two expands the budget, scope and momentum of its predecessor by taking risks with elaborate set-pieces and generous narrative clip. The movie could have easily reeked of indulgence, but trying to reasonably relay King's overcooked omelet of nightmare ideas is bound to inform your final film with a fair share of both heedless experimentation and some dumb deficiencies. This It nestles into the seldom-entered territory of epic horror and leaves you there to bask in the genre's most self-evident and arcane gratifications.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice