Tag Archives: movies about space

Ad Astra

Space is a lonely place. Cold, dark, and endless, it is described as the final frontier for good reason. Still, for as long as mankind has understood that the stars are bright balls of gas billions and billions of miles away, we have dreamed of exploring the darkness, and solving the many mysteries that must be there, waiting to be found.

MV5BYmFmMDA1ZTUtMmNlOS00ODc3LTkxYWEtMTA0OWM4MDQxMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has dedicated his life to space exploration. For better or worse, Roy has also spent his life living in his father’s shadow.  Roy’s dad, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a legendary astronaut best known for disappearing somewhere near Neptune while searching for extraterrestrial life.  Roy never really knew his dad, so when he learns his father may not be as dead as was previously assumed, he’s not exactly jumping for joy.  Though to be fair, Roy has clearly never jumped for joy in his life. He’s detached, completely closed off from everyone around him, dedicated only to the missions he’s given, and his next mission is to try to make contact with his long-absent dad, who is now believed to pose a threat to all life on Earth.

The audience gets to accompany Roy on his journey, but of course we provide no company to him. Roy is alone, and while he mostly seems not to mind (indeed, he is really more comfortable in the solitude), Ad Astra weighed heavily on me. The mystery of space has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and accordingly I have dragged Jay to more sci-fi films than can be counted. Of those countless films, Ad Astra is the first to ask me to examine my curiosity and ask what, exactly am I looking for? What is it about space that draws our dreams away from our home and into the endless void?

There are no easy answers in Ad Astra, and plenty of time to think about the many big questions raised by writers James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross. Space is very quiet, and Roy’s journey is a satisfingly slow one. The journey feels even all the more important because of the slow pace. It becomes more an emotional, and even spiritual, journey than a spatial one, and an exploration of what really matters to us, both individually and as a species.  And it’s a wonderful trip.

Advertisements

Apollo 13

The real Apollo 13 mission was largely ignored in 1970. People had already seen men walk on the moon twice before, so this just seemed like more of the same. Interest was so low that lots of news programs weren’t even broadcasting it. Until, that is, things went wrong.

An oxygen tank exploded, which crippled essential systems. The 3 astronauts aboard just had to hang out in an increasingly inhospitable ship as the NASA crew on the ground scrambled to get them home safely. The planned moon walk was of course aborted; they never landed on the moon, just orbited around it. Over the next few days, the spacecraft had limited power, a worrying loss of cabin heat, a shortage or drinkable water, and an urgent need to fix the carbon dioxide removal system or die trying.

America might have been bored with moon walks, but for astronaut Jim Lovell, it would be the culmination of his life’s ambition. It was not to be.

Ron Howard brought this story of NASA’s most successful failure to the big screen in 1995, and still thinks of it as his best film. In fact, he thinks the launch sequence is the highest point of his career, and he’s not wrong. Watching First Man more than 20 years later, it’s clear that Apollo 13 had a huge impact on movies that would follow it.

Jim Lovell thought that perhaps Kevin Costner had a passing likeness, but once Ron Howard signed on as director, he immediately sent the script to Tom Hanks, who is a known space buff. Bill Paxton portrayed Fred Haise, while Kevin Bacon got the role of Jack Swigert, who was never supposed to be there. He was only on the mission as a backup, but blood screening suggested that Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) might have the measles, and he was replaced last minute. Though this was an undoubtedly heartbreaking switch, it was Mattingly’s expertise on the ground that ultimately helped save his crewmates. He sat in the simulator for days, doing simulation after simulation until he could work out a way to rescue his friends.

The actors, or actornauts as Howard called them on set, floated around in $30K space suits. And yes, they really did float. Steven Spielberg suggested that Howard approached NASA for special permission to use its KC-135 airplane, and permission was granted. Dubbed the vomit comet, the plane climbs to 38 000 feet and then does a big 15 000 foot drop, creating a zero-gravity effect, but it only creates about 23 seconds of weightlessness. For the film’s production, they had the plane perform 612 dives, for a total of 54 minutes of footage. Even still, sometimes when you see the actors just bobbing around in their capsule, they’re actually just sitting on seesaws. Pretending to be in space is hard! [Note: the 3 actors were very proud to report that none of them vomited on the comet…but several cameramen could not say the same.]

It took them 6 days to get them safely home, and while America did not care about a third module landing on the moon, it became obsessed with the imperiled mission that may or may not return. Millions of people tuned in every night, and so did the friends and families of the astronauts on board. NASA didn’t have time to give them proper updates, so they, like everyone else, relied on Walter Cronkite to feed them information. Ron Howard brought Cronkite in to record a few extra reports.

Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise had of course appeared together the year before in Forrest Gump, where Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan says to Forrest: ” If you’re ever a shrimp boat captain, that’s the day I’m an astronaut.” Lo and behold. The movie is full of little Ron Howard nods: Kathleen Quinlan who plays Jim’s wife Marilyn, actually had her first ever screen credit in American Graffiti, in which she played Peggy, a girl complaining in a bathroom about her boyfriend Steve – who was of course played by Howard himself. He also found a role for Roger Corman, the producer who gave Ron his first big break in Grand Theft Auto. Ron’s mother, his father, his wife, and of course his brother all appear in the film. The real Marilyn Lovell is briefly seen in the grandstands at the launch, and the real Jim shakes hands with the fake Jim aboard the Iwo Jima.

Apollo 13 was well-received, and it holds up well almost 25 years later. There are lots of movies about astronaut heroes, but Apollo 13 sets itself apart by portraying the time when someone’s dream doesn’t come true. It takes a story whose outcome is known (and in fact infamous: “Houston, we have a problem”) and still makes it feel tense and compelling.

TIFF18: High Life

The interesting thing about High Life is the negative space – it’s all the stuff it cleverly carves out. At some point in the future, Earth is sending young, death-row convicts to outer space to “serve science” by allowing their bodies to be experimented upon. What kind of Earth is this? We never see it. What kind of crimes are we talking about? We’re never told.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is one such prisoner. The film’s first scene shows him alone on a space craft save for a baby – his daughter? Cut to: an undisclosed time before, when he is just one of many prisoners under the scrutiny of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Ostensibly they’re gathering information on black holes, but there’s also fertility experimentation being done – and what we know and they don’t is they’re never coming back from this mission. They were never meant to.

The male prisoners masturbate alone in a ‘fuck room’ and Dr. Dibs then fertilizes the female prisoners, which makes for near-constant space miscarriages. She herself A45FC0CD-D445-49D6-8783-5FC5F4E28DBA-thumb-860xauto-72637enjoys a solitary go at the fuck room, riding a contraption reminiscent of Burn After Reading’s dildo chair. She enjoys a little solo S&M, her white skin framed by the black walls, the room feeling as dark and blank as the space outside, though rarely glimpsed, must also be.

There’s a lot of silence in space; so too in Claire Denis’s High Life. It’s disorienting and confusing and filled me with dread. In contrast to Interstellar or Gravity or The Martian, High Life has very little in the way of special effects, and actually doesn’t bother much with what’s outside the walls of their ship. If you’re a fan of Claire Denis, don’t worry, she’s as inaccessible as ever – bleak, subversive, full of fleeting, nightmarish impressions.

There’s a lot of ritual in this movie but no purity – Claire Denis puts bodies through hell. Body horror? Sort of. A horrific degradation of bodies. Of consent. Of dignity. In Monte we find a different kind of prisoner, and a stubborn will to persist. There’s a special kind of stress, and madness, to be found in the voids but always Denis refers back to what these 9 represent: humanity? What does their treatment mean for the humans back on Earth, and how does it feel to be utterly forgotten and abandoned by society?

 

 

TIFF18: First Man

You know the story. The whole world knows the story. Neil Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and Apollo astronaut, was the first man to walk on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – that was him. American hero, international phenomenon, global icon. First Man is his biopic, tracing the 304400 km path he took from humble test pilot to living legend.

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the ethereal La La Land, which made him the youngest Best Director to ever be awarded the prize at the Oscars. To say I was highly anticipating screening this movie at TIFF is like saying Armstrong was kind of an interesting guy – a resounding understatement. But when the lights came back up, I was feeling a little…underwhelmed? Bored? Disconnected.

Feeling uncomfortable with my initial reaction, I turned to my favourite critic in a whole cinema full of press, and invited him to discuss and unpack this movie over sushi burritos. First – Ryan Gosling. He gives a terrifically reserved, very stoic performance as a famously quiet, attention-shirking man. Armstrong is surprisingly passive when encountering life-altering choices. He’s dispassionate. He’s obsessed with technical detail and getting things right but he never seems overly impressed with the great heights involved in his job. Wait a minute – is it possible Neil Armstrong was on the spectrum? To be clear, I’ve never heard that he’s an Aspie, or had high-IQ autism. Nor have I heard it mentioned in the context of this film. However, his wife at the time, Janet (played in the Film Title: First Manmovie by Claire Foy), called him “emotionally disconnected.” In the film, he struggles to speak to fellow astronauts and even his own children, and goes out of his way  not to. But it’s not that he doesn’t care. He clearly grieves the loss of his infant daughter, and thinks of her often. And he’s sensitive to the deaths of his colleagues. But these are internal struggles that rarely get expressed, or expressed correctly. He’s not unfriendly or unapproachable, exactly, but human connection is hard for him. Is undiagnosed autism what Gosling is hinting at with such a performance? And with that question in mind, the rest of the movie unlocks before me.

I trust Damien Chazelle as a director. If I’m feeling underwhelmed, isn’t it because he wants me to? After all, this is the guy who made me sweat while watching a movie about jazz (sorry, jazz). If he wanted me soaring among the stars, he certainly has the vision not to mention the skill. He swept me away with La La Land; I danced out of the theatre even as I ugly-snot-cried. If my feet are more firmly planted on the ground for this film, there has to be a reason.

What if Chazelle is attempting to put us not just in Armstrong’s shoes, but in his head? I felt very removed during the movie, but maybe that’s exactly his intention: to show the greatest, most ambitious, most adrenaline-fueled achievement in the history of humankind through the eyes of someone who doesn’t express feelings in the usual way.

Whoa.

Now that I’m re-examining the film through this  new filter, I realize that I don’t remember Gosling smiling even once in the whole 120+ minutes. He doesn’t cry when he’s sad, nor does he ever appear to be particularly happy. At a pre-flight press conference, a journalist asks him how it feels to find out he’ll be the first to walk on the moon, to which he simply responds “I’m pleased.” Finding this response lacking, the reporter probes further, asking him to compare it to finding out he’d been selected for NASA’s astronaut program, to which Armstrong can only repeat “I’m pleased.” Although he’s certainly capable of more complex emotions, communicating them seems impossible. Another scene that struck me is one in which Armstrong is trying to sneak out of the house without saying goodbye. He’ll be gone for 2 months, strapped to a bomb that will explode him out of the atmosphere to land or crash on the moon and no one knows for sure if he’ll ever come back. His family has attended the funerals of many friends and colleagues who’ve perished in various missions. His two young sons are sad and scared and he tried to sneak away. His wife has to beg him to say a few words, but “I love you” are not among them. Knowing his father doesn’t like hugs, his brave son offers a handshake instead, not knowing if this is to be their last embrace.

This film is strangely muted, with even the score a tad alienating with unfamiliar instruments. And check out that photo from above – doesn’t that blue wash make him seem lonely, and isolated? This great adventure in the sky should be exciting and staggering, but the biggest sensation we’re given is physical discomfort as we’re rumbled and tumbled about during liftoff sequences. Not that Armstrong complains. There’s no swelling pride or patriotism, no heroic speeches or manly tears. In fact, there’s very little awe. In the vastness of space, the screen is often filled with a solitary face. I wonder if the emphasis on extreme close-ups is supposed to symbolize Armstrong’s challenge in deciphering non-verbal cues, or if it’s merely to give us a better view of his consistently flat affect.

The camera seems to offer things up from Armstrong’s point of view – one small chunk of moon dust rather than an entire lunar landscape. His trip into the infinite universe feels very small, and very  humble, but he’s not unmoved. He just has a narrow focus, more fascinated by his own boot print than by the multitude of stars. Does Armstrong feel more at home in the empty quiet of space? Maybe. But we’ll never know because he sure as heck didn’t say so.

If my little theory is correct, I wish I had know it going in rather than piecing it together in hindsight. What more would I have noticed? I can’t wait to re-watch and find out. I can’t wait to appreciate Armstrong and his accomplishments in this new light, and to celebrate Chazelle as a director who can so completely immerse and saturate you in someone else’s experience. Remarkable.

Geostorm

Geostorm takes incoherence to a whole new level, one I never thought possible. A guy dies on a space station for reasons that are entirely unclear and it seemed to me I had missed something. I rewound because I thought I missed an important detail, but I didn’t. It is just an unexplained and unexpected event almost 20 minutes into a 109 minute movie. The music cues told me this event was very mysterious, and eventually it ends up being a super important plot point begeostorm-1280-1508455954341_1280wcause it brings Gerard Butler into the mix (because he designed the space station in question). Come to think of it, Butler as a space station designer is one of the most believable aspects of this film.  That’s Geostorm in a nutshell.

Geostorm is a shameless ripoff of Armageddon, right down to tragedies in Asia and hail the size of basketballs, and Butler is asked to be both Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis. He is not up to the task to even being William Fichter (the guy with the gun in space). But rest assured, there is tons of drama to come, and it is set to the most over-dramatic and generic music imaginable. And the drama keeps on building as the scientists theorize that a Geostorm is on the way, and it turns out that Butler and his brother have quite a complex relationship, and a secret code, and lots of sciency gibberish to share with each other. At least I think these things were an attempt to add depth to these characters, but it all comes off as total garbage, and a pale imitation of other disaster movies that weren’t all that great in the first place. The worst part is, there’s not even a Geostorm for, like, ever, as we are forced to wait and wait for the disaster to actually occur while the scientists overhype it (by a lot).

I am quick to make fun of Michael Bay, because he makes lots of big, dumb movies that make little to no sense. Well, Geostorm made me feel kind of bad about having done that, repeatedly.  Mr. Bay, I am truly sorry for ever calling you a talentless hack because  Geostorm makes Armageddon look like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In short, as a film, Geostorm is a disaster on a global scale. Fortunately, this is one disaster you can avoid all by yourself, without needing to prove that climate change is real.

Life

When I think about space, my limited imagination often goes to the arrogant American astronauts boldly planting a flag on the moon. In fact, there are now 6 American flags on american-flag-moonthe moon, one from each Apollo mission that landed there. Of course, none of these flags would be identifiably American any more, the stars and stripes long since bleached away by radiation from the sun. And none of them ever rippled in the breeze as the famous photo would have you believe (there is no wind on the moon, there is no atmosphere on the moon). It was a ruse devised by NASA and enabled by Neil Armstrong. The flag has a hidden metal rod along the top of the fabric; when Armstrong planted it, he gave the metal bar a push and the flag “waved.” It was a cheat, but after declaring a giant leap on behalf of “mankind”, the Americans wanted a way to tell the world “We got here first.”

Why am I rambling about the flags on the moon? Well, mostly because I don’t think there’s a single inch of film in all of Life where director Daniel Espinosa could plant his flag. It’s a complete retread. And I don’t mean that it’s bad, just that it owes a lot to space movies that have come before it, and it doesn’t have anything original to add to the “trapped in space” trope.

There’s questionable judgment and the flagrant flogging of protocol. There are plot holes to rival black holes. If you think about it at all you’ll be sucked into the vacuum of space where there’s no enjoyment of anything. But there is a way to enjoy this film: lay back and enjoy the ride. Because what Life is is a pretty intense thriller. My anxiety was so high I life3had to look away from the screen and focus on my gold Converse for safety’s sake. It was so tense I had the bones in Sean’s right hand nearly as mangled as a certain someone‘s in the movie.

Basically, six surprisingly attractive astronauts are hanging out in the International Space Station, waiting for a special delivery, some samples from Mars. Their mission is to probe the samples that arrive, and before long they’ve found the first incontrovertible evidence of life on Mars, which is cool for about 10 seconds before it starts trying to eat them. This is of course their own damn fault for pushing the thing out of hibernation in the first place. Note to everyone: curiosity killed the cat. So yeah, this alien thingy becomes very strong and oddly sentient and wildly out of control. The astronauts’ lives are in imminent and immediate danger, which is hard to care about because we hardly know them before the single cell from Mars becomes the monster that threatens humanity. And that’s the other slight problem is that the lives of the astronauts are overshadowed by the greater threat against all of humankind.

Luckily, the acting is pretty good. None of the characters is all that distinguishable but between Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, there’s enough charisma to circle the earth roughly 16 times a day (Zing! that’s an international space station joke, y’all!).

Okay, I’m quitting while I’m ahead. Life: fun but forgettable.

The Only Star Wars Trilogy that Matters

So you may have heard that my darling husband Sean has used my recovery from back surgery as the perfect excuse to finally induce me to watch the very thing I’vimagesCANZSY7Ve spent my whole life avoiding – Star Wars. No, I hadn’t seen a single one, and no, I never wanted to. And believe me, going 30 years in North America without seeing Star Wars is like going 30 years without a pregnancy scare: nearly impossible, and not without effort (I did both, and if I had to break the seal on one, damn right I’m glad it was George Lucas’s baby and not Sean’s).

Sean successfully dragged me to see The Force Awakens back in December, and I had to admit I didn’t hate it. I thought it was fun, and I knew that with a little oxy in my system, my resolve would crumble. And it meant so much to Sean, well, fine: let’s call it one of those marital compromises I usually think are a load of bullocks (after all, compromise usually just means you’re both a bit disappointed – might as well just make me happy, right, dear?).

First we watched the prequels, Episodes I-III. I can’t say I was inspired to go on with Star Wars OG, but you all were nearly as persistent as Sean, and so with minimal doping and only a little more whining, we did.

Did I love them???????

No.

Sorry, guys. I don’t know why I’m apologizing. I just know these films are beloved. They mean something to people, Sean included. They were part of his childhood. He was once a little boy who looked at the stars differently after this movie. Han-Shot-First-meme-Star-Wars-BlogThey informed the way he’d watch movies for the rest of his life, the way he’d tell stories, even, the way he knew good and evil. Fuck.

But me? I’m an old lady with half a back who’s watching them for the first time with my 2016 eyes. Which is not a comment on the technology. I think the prequels versus the original trilogy makes a strong statement in favour of practical effects. No, what I mean is: I’ve been living in a Star Wars-soaked world my whole life. They debuted before I was born. Our popular culture is not just influenced by these movies, but built around them. Never having seen the movies, I could still tell you what sound a light saber makes, or at least the sound young boys (and let’s face it – young men) make when they pretend play them.

So I know who Darth Vader is. SPOILER ALERT! I know he’s “the greatest villain ever.” And I know he’s the father. I know the iconic music John Williams wrote for him. And I know he was a socially awkward, whiny emo kid with weird, murdery impulses and an inability to talk to women. See how I said “spoiler alert”? That’s like, something that’s evolvdarthvader_starwarsed in the last 3 years, not the last 30. This stuff has just permeated culture at large. But in real life? Darth Vader doesn’t seem all that scary to me. I mean, Vader elevated the game, sure. But I’ve only ever exited in this elevated world. You got to compete.

But also: everyone complained about how Jar Jar Binks was so damned annoying in the prequelsc3po, but hello – isn’t he just the new C3PO? I wanted to find a wrench and beat his arms straight with it. Shut up  you insipid, whining good for nothing sorry excuse for a robot (any droid built by Anakin would be whiny though, wouldn’t it?).

And Luke? What a wimp. How is it possible that the Skywalkers are constantly called upon to save the galaxy, or the Jedi way, when in fact the male lineage in that family is so damned lame (props to the ladies – Leia and Rey are tough as shit)?lukeleia They whine and bumble and it makes me feel like the Jedis aren’t  super-cool badasses like I’ve been led to believe, but a group of guys probably living in their parents’ basement, meeting up to wear costumes and braid each other’s hair and play magic card games and pretend that not getting laid is a “code of honour” when it’s really just “never gonna happen” and “beyond their imaginations” anyway.

star-wars-9gagSo yeah, if you were 9 when you first saw this, I get it. Super cool space ships, weapons just aching to be turned into toys, and practically no kissing. Heaven! Or, you know, hell if you’re me.