Blog Archives

Voyagers (2021)

Voyagers feels so astonishingly like a Young Adult novel and yet it is an original screenplay from director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), though it borrows heavily from Lord of the Flies at that. Set in the distant future, we’re aboard a colony ship with teenagers meant to be the future of Earth, or at least their grandchildren will be when they land on a new planet. They’re kept on a controlled regiment of activity, nutrition, and mood-altering medication to keep their hormones in check until it’s optimum breeding time (in vitro operations). After an accident, the teenagers are all alone on a ship with no adults, and they fear an alien might have snuck on board. This leads to different factions being created, one that says to follow the rules established by their adult authority figures, and the other that wants to stop taking their meds, stop rationing their supplies, and live as wild as they desire. This leads to extended bouts of PG-13 horniess; the movie practically feels like it’s trying to dry hump you for stretches of time. Everything is very YA, from the character dynamics, to the major conflict without adults, to dealing with their hormones and the thrill of freedom. I found an unexpected parallel with this movie to the January 6 insurrection. The villain in this movie, played snidely by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), is a darkly charismatic leader who appeals to the most selfish, self-destructive instincts of his peers, and even after definitive proof is given about his moral culpability, he’s able to still gaslight his followers to accept his reality distortions and stirs them into an ignorant, violent mob. I found this character’s eventual death to be extremely satisfying as a climax. Regardless, Voyagers isn’t anything special. It’s a lot of running down corridors, smokey side eyes and lip biting, and paranoid shouting about who is or isn’t the alien. As a user so succinctly put it on Letterboxd, it’s “Among Us but horny.”

Nate’s Grade: C

Dune (2021)

I attempted to read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune when I was in the seventh grade. I had begun to read more fantasy literature and was looking at older, heralded novels. I can still recall my frustration of reading those first five pages and having to repeatedly flip back and forth to a twenty-five-page glossary of terms so that I could even start to comprehend what was happening on the page. After those five excruciating pages, I gave up. Maybe I was too rash, and maybe my older present self would be more accommodating to the struggle, or maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort. I never watched the 1984 David Lynch adaptation that was met with great derision from critics and fans alike, although it does have its vocal defenders (Hindsight alert: Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi to helm Dune). So when acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) became attached to direct a big-budget, large-scale adaptation of Herbert’s novel, I was finally interested for the first time in my life. It was originally slated to be released in 2020, and after the studio planned to release Dune onto its HBO Max streaming service, Villeneuve and the production company negotiated to make sure a theatrical release would still be an important part of the plan. Alas, I watched the 2021 Dune at home, and I found myself enjoying the experience and development of the world building. However, it’s unlikely to watch this version of Dune and feel like you got a full movie for your money.

In the distant future, like 10,000 A.D., mankind has colonized worlds and the most important planet of them all is Arrakis. It’s a desert world inhabited by poor natives, Freeman, who live a moisture-preserving life mining the natural “spice,” a special substance that makes space travel capable as well as prolonging human life. The top family houses are vying for dominance and House Atreides has been assigned by the unseen Emperor to rule over Arrakis and bring it and its spice production back in line. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees great opportunity but also great danger. The other houses will scheme to engineer the failure and desolation of House Atreides, especially House Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who is like a mixture between Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando from The Island of Doctor Moreau (plus with levitation powers?). Paul Atriedes (Timothee Chalamet) is his family’s heir and much is expected of him, especially from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who believes he may be long-prophesied messiah. On Arrakis, Paul and his father must tackle this very delicate new mission while keeping the many adversaries at bay.

As anticipated, Dune is yet another visually stunning and gorgeously immersive visual experience from one of the greatest visual filmmakers working today. If you can watch the movie on a big screen, or at least a bigger screen, then you owe it to yourself to do so. The sweeping vistas and startling science fiction imagery have so much power and grandeur to them. If Lynch’s movie inspired a generation of devotees and impressionable children, I imagine that this superior modern version will do likewise. The production design and costumes are terrific and perfectly in keeping with the larger scope of the expansive visuals. You really feel the size of this world and its imposing weight. Villeneuve has such a natural keen eye for pleasing visual compositions, but he also has the patience many famous big screen stylists lack. He allows the moments to linger and to let scenes breathe in a way that feels more transporting and immersive. If you were simply looking for a visually resplendent movie-going experience, then Dune is the ticket. The sound design is also very smartly aligned and makes use of unconventional and alien sounds to make the movie feel even more like its own thing. When Dune came out in 1965, this was before much of the modern building blocks of our sci-fi pop-culture, so in a way while Dune was the influence it feels partially like an odd after-effect rather than a predecessor. The same thing happened with 2012’s John Carter, based upon a novel a hundred years old that influenced many sci-fi adventure serials and now seems derivative even though it came before the many imitations. I was happy with the first 90 minutes of Dune and felt like the slow pace of the first hour, and its heft of needed but spaced-out exposition, was paying off with a thrilling assault. The concept of the protective shields is a smart way to communicate the casualties of battle, where “kill shots” are illuminated in red, informing the audience of a mortal wound. It makes for an easy to read visual to keep up with the development of battle and stay in a safer PG-13 realm. The whole rescue sequence on the mining station is thrilling at every step.

The cast is another major credit to the success of Dune. Chalament (Little Women) has a soulful yearning to him, to learn, to be his own man, to prove his father wrong and then prove worthy of his father’s faith. Surprisingly, the next biggest role isn’t Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie), the woman that Paul dreams about (prophetically?); it’s Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) as Paul’s mother. She’s a woman with deep secrets belonging to a powerful religious sect that might be the real power behind the throne. Lady Jessica is more Paul’s mentor than any man. She teaches him to hone and focus his mind, to use the “Voice” to impart his will, and to prepare for the hardships to come. With every new exposition dump, and she has many, we learn about her growing concern for the fate of her son and her possible culpability for that fate. There’s a genuine warmth between them that serves as the film’s emotional core. I enjoyed watching Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Dave Bautista (Army of the Dead) as opposite ends of Super Good Fighter Guy, though Momoa looked unsettling without a beard. Needless to say, the 2021 movie is far more diverse than the 1984 movie. It makes space feel more lived in when it’s reflective of a diversity of people that we already have at this point in our history.

And then, after the hallway mark, Dune became a protracted sequence of chases and then I started to worry that things were just going to end in an unsatisfying manner, relegating the 150 minutes as setup for the as-yet-unplanned sequel, and that’s exactly what happened. My mood began to deflate somewhat during the last hour of Dune. I was still interested and the visuals were still mighty captivating, but the events had the unmistakable feeling of being stretched out to meet a frustrating stopping point, a pause that didn’t produce a satisfying endpoint. I just kept thinking, “Oh, they’re not going to resolve this,” and, “Oh, Zendaya is barely going to be in this movie,” and the movie proved my predictions correct. It’s hard to judge the movie as its own entity since it’s so dependent on a Part Two that has yet to be greenlighted (though its strong opening box-office returns are hopeful). This is an expensive movie, possibly pushing $200 million, so it’s quite a gamble to declare you would only be adapting roughly half of the story. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, a movie I loved, had a budget of $150 million and a worldwide gross that didn’t make the producers comfortable going forward with a Blade Runner 2050. To be fair, that was an original story, a sequel, and rather well contained. Still, it’s an expensive sci-fi movie that has as much in common with dry art house fare as it does blockbuster adventures, like Villeneuve’s Dune. The promise of a second movie is not secured. If Dune doesn’t do well enough, we’ll forever be left with a movie that feels designed to only be a teaser. It reminds me of the hubris of 2007’s The Golden Compass where the filmmakers had a whole 20-minute finale that they carved out with the intention of having it be the opening for the assumed sequel (welp). Even when designing a multi-movie arc, it’s necessary to plan each entry so that it can exist as its own beginning-middle-end and with a suitable intermediary climax. The Lord of the Rings movies each had their own climax, each moving the larger picture forward, and each had storylines and subplots that came to a head by film’s conclusion. Dune doesn’t. There are more dead characters by the end and certain characters are displaced, but it feels less like the end of the big-budget Dune movie and more like the conclusion of episode two of the Dune mini-series.

My resonance with the source material is minimal, but the world of Dune feels stuffed with stuff and not as deep in the realm of commentary. Fans of the book series will likely thrill at the level of minutia the 2021 movie luxuriates in, allowing fans to lap up the lore. For those of us uninitiated into the fandom, it feels like there could be more going on behind the scenes. The book was released in 1965 and has clear parallels to Middle East occupations and quagmires, a subject even more relevant in the first quarter of this new century. There’s the occupying force coming in to manage the supposedly primitive natives on a desert planet, replacing the last occupier who made bold promises that were unable to be met by the reality on the ground. The parallels of colonialism are there and obvious, but that’s because everything in Dune seems obvious to me. The bad guys are corpse-white and dressed in all black. They look like the alien zombies from 1998’s Dark City (itself referencing the silent sci-fi classic, Metropolis). The leader of House Harkonnen is this noxious man who bathes in black goo and sucks the life force from others. I don’t need my sci-fi to be ambiguous about its heroes and villains. We clearly recognize the bad guys because they’re grotesque. However, the lessons learned by the heroes seem a bit stilted. Its attacks on capitalism are a little more nuanced but not much. The planet of Arrakis could produce water but that’s not in the interest of the power brokers of the galaxy. They need the spice for the economy and thus keep the exploitative status quo. The parallels are there but there’s not much more to be had other than direct summations. The movie has more to say with religion and messiah figures but at this point we’re grading on a curve, and the more complex commentary attached to messiah figures seems reserved for a Part Two.

Another aspect I want to highlight that seems trivial but no less intriguing to me is how Herbert chooses his character names. We’re eight thousand years into the future, spanning multiple planets with names like Arrakis and Giedi Prime and Salusa Secondus, and then we have such anodyne twentieth-century names like… Paul and Jessica? It’s funny to me that Herbert goes to the trouble of coming up with so much jargon and terminology and alien-sounding names and then he says, “Hey, this guy’s name is… Duncan Idaho,” like he’s a supporting character in Point Break. I realize this is a very dubious criticism, and there are other character names to conflict with this assertion, but it made me laugh at the different levels of effort Herbert put into his world-building and universe than selecting character names for that same far away land.

After watching the new Dune, I went and watched the 1984 David Lynch version for the first time and was, quite simply, dumbfounded. I’ll credit Lynch for many of the weird choices in style and how it never stoops to even be accessible for a mass audience, despite having characters explicitly narrate their schemes and motivations out in the open (by scene one, the power play that took up 90 minutes of Dune 2021 is awkwardly explained in full). By the end of Lynch’s movie, it is an incomprehensible campy mess. I only have more appreciation for the 2021 Dune after watching the goofy (those eyebrows!) 1980s version that Lynch has disowned entirely, although that stirring guitar riff from the score still rocks thirty years later. The new Dune is only intended as Part One as its presumptive title promises, and because of this key artistic decision, there’s a feeling of padding and wear by the end. I found myself reflecting back on the first 90 minutes more fondly. It’s not that the last hour is absent great moments or audacious style, but it’s hard to fully judge this Dune when its last line is its own conditioning of expectations: “This is only the beginning.” The 2021 Dune is a visually remarkable movie experience with fantastic artists executing at some of the highest points of their talent. I’m eager to see if a Part Two can provide the satisfaction lacking in this beginning half. It’s a hell of a start but it feels too incomplete and in need of an ending.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Midnight Sky (2020)

The Midnight Sky is really two sci-fi survival movies in one. In 2040, the world is experiencing a planet-killing ecological disaster. A team of astronauts, lead by a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), is returning from a multi-year mission to check if a moon of Jupiter is habitable. On Earth, Augustine (George Clooney with a Santa beard) is the lone scientist left at an Arctic research station. He has cancer and sees his life as having run its course, that is, until he finds a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) who missed being evacuated. They band together to brave the wintry, poisonous elements to travel to another outpost to better communicate with the returning astronauts and possibly secure an escape from this dying world. It sounds like it should be a very exciting and interesting movie. There are even sinking ice floes, space walks amidst deadly asteroids, and Augustine having to stop at points lest he overtax his frail body. In practice, the movie isn’t so much exciting as it is ponderous, grasping for a larger philosophy and existential meaning that seems entirely elusive. We’re treated to several flashbacks of a young Augustine (different actor but still voiced by Clooney) that seem superfluous until a grand reveal that made me audibly groan so loud I thought my neighbors would complain. I kept waiting for the relevancy between the stories to be demonstrated, and when it happened it was not worth the two-hour wait. The realization was so hokey that it retroactively made me dislike the movie’s moments that had been working earlier. As far as direction, this might be one of Clooney’s strongest turns as a visual storyteller, even if he borrows liberally from other recent sci-fi movies, notably Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. There are moments of stark beauty and terror. Ultimately, the whole movie amounts to a sad man taking stock of his life and legacy (is he a metaphor for the Earth? Is the Earth a metaphor for him?), and I’m still wondering how something this glum could also be so maudlin. The pacing is another issue. I was always eager to jump to the other storyline to see what they were doing (a cinematic “grass is greener” mindset). The acting is fine and I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the crew of this space mission (including Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone) or conversely gotten to feel more of bond between Augustine and his near-mute charge that felt like it was providing insight into this man. Looking back, there’s a reason for some of the stilted characterization, but having an excuse for why your characters aren’t better developed is like preparing an excuse why you did something self-sabotaging. The rest of The Midnight Sky doesn’t better compensate for this storytelling choice, and so the movie feels too dull, frustrating, opaque, and overly manipulative, aided and abetted by Alexandre Desplat’s sappy score. No more than the sum of its parts, you can soon watch The Midnight Sky on Netflix and fall asleep to it on your own couch.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Lucy in the Sky (2019)

I don’t really know what this movie was trying to say. I think co-writer/director Noah Hawley (TV’s Fargo, Legion) was better trying to humanize the story of Lisa Novak, the astronaut who drove 900 miles, while wearing diapers to skip bathroom breaks, to confront the current lover of an ex-boyfriend, all three NASA employees. It was a story so bizarre, so tabloid ready, that a big screen adaptation was inevitable. What I wasn’t expecting was an artist to take this and discard the attention-grabbing details and turn this into a ponderous existential meditation. Lucy (Natalie Portman) has recently returned from Earth and our big blue planet doesn’t feel the same after she’s touched the majesty of space. Her life seems small, meaningless, boring, and she can’t shake her terrestrial depression. She begins an affair with a co-worker (Jon Hamm) to feel that same special sensation again, but she’s chasing something uniquely elusive. Lucy in the Sky is structured like a meandering Terrence Malick movie was crossbred with a heavy-handed addiction melodrama. It’s not a good fit. The ever-changing aspect ratios are meant to convey her emotional state, but just when I thought I had a handle on how to decode them, Hawley would frustratingly break the rules with them. As far as I can tell, the wider ratio (during space) is meant to convey… good things, and the smaller, boxier ratios (Earthbound) are meant to convey… not good things. But then wide shots will be filmed in super widescreen and it throws away that interpretation. It’s an annoying visual tic in a movie that feels over-directed. The blunt characterization for Lucy fails to open her up beyond that of a self-destructive addict. She had a demanding mother (Ellen Burstyn), an existential crisis, and a boring husband (Dan Stevens), so does that explain her behavior? Portman commits to the madness and I give her credit, though her thick Texas accent made me rear back (it sounded like Reba McEntire). The movie is almost worth watching just for her game performance, kind of like last year’s similar artistic misfire, Vox Lux. Lucy is definitely unhinged by the time she’s making her fateful cross-state road trip. She mutters that women are regarded as “too emotional” as a common slight to sideline, but her behavior isn’t exactly dispelling this criticism. Maybe trying to turn “diaper astronaut love triangle” into a symbol for female discrimination wasn’t exactly the best call. Lucy in the Sky is an arty mess that is trying so hard to say something profound but loses the very appeal of its source material. Either you embrace “diaper astronaut love triangle” or you don’t.

Nate’s Grade: C

Ad Astra (2019)

I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.

Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.

My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.

The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.

Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.

It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.

Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.

Nate’s Grade: C+

High Life (2019)

The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.

I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.

Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.

I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.

The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.

This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?

High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.

High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.

Nate’s Grade: C

First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

Solaris (2002)

A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.

Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.

It’’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’’s just that it’’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.

Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’’s conscious gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.

I’’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked beauty McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.

Soderbergh’’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Space Cowboys (2000)

Geezers in space? Consider it the John Glenn biopic. Clint Eastwood teams up with veteran actors James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones to save the world with the combined aid of Ensure and adult diapers. But these old-timers show some of the “youngins” what movie entertainment is really all about.

Back in the day when the Air Force was in charge of space related programs Clint and his team were the cream of their crop and scheduled to be the first men to enter the dark void of space. Unfortunately NASA was formulated and the boys got the boot for a cosmo chimp. Now 50 years later the earth is threatened by a falling Russian satellite with technology too ancient that only a select group of experienced men still know to this day. So NASA enlists the help of the very men it backhanded so many moons ago to be drafted into a space operation to halt the plummeting satellite.

For a good while Space Cowboys is a breath of fresh air from a veteran team of actors. The rivalry between Jones and Eastwood as well as the young healthy astronauts versus the elderly-shake-your-hand-at-Wal-Mart astronauts makes for great comedy. The entire core group of actors sparkle with terrific chemistry and on screen presence. They create a jovial fun atmosphere that makes the movie humorous and surprisingly engrossing.

Space Cowboys is not liver-spot free. The direction by Eastwood is often flat and very un-engaging. The entire Russian Cold War spy subplot borders on the absurd, and the romances with women that can be their daughters makes vomit rise into my throat whenever I see their leathery faces suck the life out of those young and nubile girls. When the gentlemen get launched into space the entire movie loses focus and forgets what made it before. The typical space rescue themes abound and you know before they get up there that one of them won’t make it back, and probably do something heroic in the first place.

For the most part Space Cowboys is a reminder that the elderly still know how to put on a good show, even if the last fourth is very lackluster. These cowboys can ride off into the sunset content for a job well done.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Mission to Mars (2000)

Mission to Mars begins with a team of astronauts making the first manned mission to the red planet. Unfortunately things go… um, bad, and thus with no knowledge of any survivors and the six month time period it takes to travel to Mars, NASA sends out a rescue mission. More things go bad.

The setting is supposed to be 2020, but everything looks exactly like 1980. In the future there seems to be heavy reliance on product placement. From Dr. Pepper, to M&Ms, to having the damn Mars buggy plastered with Penzoil and Kawasaki. Are these astronauts Earth’s interstellar door-to-door salesmen? I was half expecting them to nix the American flag and firmly plant one for Nike. Maybe the future’s just this way because they drink from square beer.

Director Brian DePalma unleashes fantastic special effect after another, but they can only sugarcoat the bitter taste Mars resides in your mouth. Mission to Mars is tragically slow paced, full of interchangeable and indiscernible characters, and begging for some kind of insight. Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise prove that no matter how great an actor you are, when you’re given cheesy sci-fi dialogue, it’s still cheesy.

The fault lies with the more than three screenwriters and DePalma himself. Plain and simple, DePalma has lost his touch. His good days (The Untouchables) are clearly behind him on his new downward slide. Mars in any other director’s hands would no doubt be different — and that’s no bad thing. DePalma’s style of appropriations rips off the earlier, better, and more insightful 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Mars is surprisingly and sadly devoid of any tension or suspense. The suspense was likely killed in the efforts to portray an “accurate and realistic NASA manned planetary exploration.” Yet the scientific inaccuracies in this “accurate” portrayal are far too numerous to mention – let alone remember all of them. You cannot have tension during a problematic situation when the score is blaring church organs!

One can suspend belief and enjoy movies but Mars is a listless journey toward sentimental other-worldly beings that just want a hug. The friendly alien thing seems to have been driven dry by now. Can we have them destroying our cities again? Pretty please.

Nate’s Grade: C

%d bloggers like this: