Ad Astra review

For F*** Magazine

AD ASTRA

Director: James Gray
Cast : Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, Kimberly Elise
Genre : Sci-fi/Adventure
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 19 September 2019
Rating : PG13

Director James Gray, known mainly for his contemplative dramas, launches into big-budget adventure movie territory with Ad Astra, while still retaining a more sombre, introspective tone than the typical movie of this type. ‘Ad Astra’ is Latin for “to the stars”. Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in Gray’s previous film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, and while he was eventually replaced with Charlie Hunnam, Pitt stayed on as a producer. Pitt and Gray collaborate again on Ad Astra, which puts the established movie star front and centre.

In the near future, space exploration has advanced considerably, with humanity travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system. Extensive colonies and bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished years ago on a mission to Neptune. Space Command has received indications that against all odds, Clifford might still be alive. The experiments that were begun on the mission that Clifford led now have a ripple effect in the form of crippling power surges, endangering life on earth. Roy resolves to track his father down and solve a mystery that has haunted him for decades.

We don’t get many big-budget sci-fi films that are very serious, in part because spectacle sells. There is a scale of sci-fi “soft” to “hard”, with Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” end and something like The Martian towards the “harder” end. Director Gray takes a very serious approach, and one can tell that a lot of research has gone into envisioning what the future of space travel might look like.

Some of the themes from The Lost City of Z, especially those of singular obsession, delusion and a desperation for a greater purpose, carry over into this film. This is a good showcase for Pitt too, who plays a heroic character burdened by sorrow and on the brink of collapse, trundling towards his goal, however futile it might be. There is little room for supporting characters, but Pitt ably carries this.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra is caught between trying to be extremely self-serious and providing the action and spectacle audiences expect. As such, the action sequences feel disjointed from the rest of the movie and do not serve the plot. We get lots of contemplative voiceover from Pitt’s character, much of it bordering on pretentious. The film’s emotional core, the father-son story, is also hard to engage with and be moved by.

As is typical for these films, the protagonist’s wife does a lot of waiting around back home and not much else. Liv Tyler plays an astronaut’s significant other again, 21 years after Armageddon, and has even less to do here than she did in the Michael Bay extravaganza. Also, while Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones are both in this film, they do not meet, denying us a Space Cowboys semi-reunion (but this is more for this reviewer’s amusement than an actual point against the movie).

Ad Astra conveys the solitude and beautiful desolation of drifting through the cosmos, wondering about one’s place in the universe. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who lensed Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and Spectre for Sam Mendes, makes this look grand and expansive. It can a bit navel gaze-y, but we saw this in IMAX and the breath-taking outer space vistas do make watching this on a huge screen somewhat worthwhile.

Two sequences seem to stick out from this otherwise sombre affair: a chase on moon buggies that pit(t)s our heroes against a band of space pirates, and an unexpected attack by bloodthirsty baboons that have gone feral after being left alone in a space station. While these two sequences provide superficial excitement, they occur relatively early in the film, such that the bulk of the latter half of the movie consists of Pitt staring into the middle distance as we occasionally cut to the exterior of the spaceship floating past Saturn’s rings.

Ad Astra may not necessarily find a big audience in theatres, but there are moviegoers who hunger for science fiction that’s more “search for our place in the universe” and less “lasers and giant spiders”.

Summary: Ad Astra is a rare movie in that it’s a star vehicle in an age when star vehicles are less common than big franchise movies, and in that it’s a serious science fiction movie with a big budget. However, Pitt’s central performance and the film’s visual splendour cannot compensate for its coldness as it trips over itself trying to be as deep and contemplative as possible.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Warcraft: The Beginning

For F*** Magazine

WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING

Director : Duncan Jones
Cast : Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Ruth Negga, Daniel Wu, Anna Galvin, Clancy Brown, Terry Notary
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hrs 3 mins
Opens : 9 June 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Blizzard’s fantasy franchise comprising video games and novels finally makes its leap to the big screen. Sir Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), the military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom in Azeroth, faces an unprecedented threat: Gul’dan (Wu), a powerful orc warlock, is leading the orc hordes from their dying homeworld of Draenor into Azeroth. Garona (Patton), a half-orc, half-human woman enslaved by Gul’dan, must decide where her loyalties lie. The noble orc chieftain Durotan (Kebbell), whose mate Draka (Galvin) is pregnant with their first child, does not see the merit in Gul’dan’s attack. At the behest of Stormwind’s King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), Lothar must defend Azeroth from the invaders. Together with young mage Khadgar (Schnetzer), Lothar seeks out the reclusive sorcerer Medivh (Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal. They must repel Gul’dan’s evil magic, known as the Fel, as the seeds of an ages-long conflict are sown.
            Director Duncan Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, weathered an arduous production process and is himself an ardent fan of the Warcraft franchise. The disparity in the reaction the film has received from critics and fans indicates that this does appeal to those already familiar with the source material and who are excited to see the characters and locations come to life in cinematic form, but that those coming in cold will likely be alienated. This is very much a generic high fantasy tale, and there are so many characters introduced from the get-go that it’s easy to get them mixed up. The straight-face earnestness in the approach is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the filmmakers demonstrate a belief in the world they are building, but on the other, there’s an impenetrable rigidity to it all. Jones ploughs dutifully through the plot, but audiences aren’t given a chance to acclimatise to the world and the characters; the story itself is simple in nature but convoluted in execution.
            Visually, this is an achievement, if not as earth-shattering as some might have hoped. The visual effects work, handled by Industrial Light and Magic and other houses like Hybride and Rodeo FX, is superb throughout. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer was an Oscar winner for Life of Pi, and one can tell that great care has been put into realising the digitally-created characters and environments. The props were crafted by Weta Workshop, and everything from the suits of armour to the swords to King Llane’s helmet abounds with pleasing detail. It’s a shame then that while perfectly acceptable, none of the designs really set Warcraftapart from its high-fantasy ilk.
            After boarding the project, Jones set about re-writing the script so that it wasn’t built around the hoary trope of “all the humans are good guys and all the monsters are bad guys”. Fimmel, best known as Ragnar Lothbrok on the TV series Vikings, is a serviceable heroic military commander. Lothar’s relationship with his son Callan (Burkely Duffield) is a key component of the character’s arc, but because it has to make room for everything else, that is severely underdeveloped. Patton exudes confidence and retains a degree of elegance while playing a feral half-breed; Garona ended up being the character this reviewer gravitated to the most. Foster lacks the other-worldly mystique that Medivh should have, while Schnetzer is a fine sidekick to Fimmel.
            In addition to playing the orc chieftain Grommash Hellscream, Terry Notary was also the movement coach for the actors playing the orcs. Notary’s credits include Avatar and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The orcs are brutish by nature, and the gentleness with which Durotan holds his new-born son does lend the character more shades beyond that of a fierce warrior. Cooper looks the part of a dashing young king and Negga is plenty regal as Llane’s Queen-consort Lady Taria. Gul’dan is as one-dimensional as villains get: he’s little more than the snarling, hunchbacked wizard with an unquenchable thirst for power. We would offer Wu some praise, but it is hard to find him (or most of the other actors playing orcs, for that matter) in the character, since his voice has been treated in post-production and there’s no resemblance whatsoever. This reviewer feels Wu should be a much bigger star in Hollywood, so it was a bit of a disappointment knowing he’s in this movie but is hardly noticeable.
            Warcraft is not a total wash, but given the build-up and the massive following the franchise has, it’s a shame that the film carries with it the vibe of going through the motions. Jones is obviously passionate about the property and has filmmaking talent to spare, but the cluttered narrative holds neophytes at bay. It’s hard to shake the feeling that one has been dropped in the deep end of the Warcraft lore pool, when this is meant to be an origin story that builds the world from the ground up. It’s more frustrating than genuinely aggravating that Warcraft stumbles so many times in its would-be epic journey.
Summary:For long-time fans of the franchise, this might be a dream come true, but it will be challenging for newbies to make head or tail of the overstuffed story, or differentiate a number of the characters.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong