Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ad Astra

When I first saw the trailer for Jim Gray's Ad Astra I had a sort of deja vu. It seemed like some old sci-fi novel from the Asimov era or something. But it was in fact an original script. It might be that this project has been talked about since 2013 and was officially announced by Gray in 2016. His aim was to create a very realistic project of man's push into the outer solar system, with a story experience something akin to Heart of Darkness. And the title phrase, which means "to the stars" in Latin, has been used by a few other authors like Jack Campbell and Kevin McLaughlin to create anthologies within the same general framework. So when I recently rented the film I found myself delighted that it was living up to its reputation.

There is a lot to take in over the course of this film. I am not a huge fan of the ominous psychological sci-fi (see Solaris). But in this film it works decently for several reasons. First, the psychology is not alien - it is grounded in family relationships and universal struggles that many of us face in life, especially that between fathers and sons. Second, the near future world that the story lives in is grounded in all the promised realism. A lot of thought went into what that world might actually look like. As I describe some of it I think I should put in the spoiler warning here.
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We have colonized the moon, but instead of the pristine look of Space 1999, we have a typical airport with shops and conveyer belts. And there are war zones representing territorial disputes over whatever mining resources are in play. Trips to the moon are like airline flights, the only difference being the huge price tags for amenities due to inflation. Launches from the moon take you to Mars which is more of a research facility. All this technology is beautifully re-created on screen without using any distracting futuristic gadgetry. The attention to detail is impressive.

There are some really memorable sequences that are integral to the story but that I've never quite seen done before. The opening includes an accident on a giant space antenna which is designed for a long wave type of SETI effort. The way it plays out on screen is spectacular. There is also chase sequence on the moon where space pirates use fast moving rovers for their attack but the low gravity environment is still represented nicely.

But I have to put just as much credit on how the story points move the narrative along with urgency, mystery, and heart. Brad Pitt's character, astronaut McBride, comes across as outwardly stoic but inwardly extremely compassionate toward all those he encounters. He slowly makes contact with his inner feelings at the same rate as he approaches his long lost father near the planet Uranus. It will move slowly for some, but for me, it was just enough to take it all in.

There are a few places where the physics doesn't quite add up, but they are generally peripheral save for the one that forms the basis for the entire journey. This is the idea that a particle surge in the outer solar systems can travel all the way to earth and cause any significant damage. I mean, if the reason his father went out there was to get away from solar wind interference, how could any "surge" travel all the way back against that wind and still be stronger than the sun's own radiation when it reaches earth enough to puncture the magnetic shield? If you can forgive that story point then I believe sci-fi fans will be treated to one of the few real efforts to do science fiction on film in a long time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Reboot Master

I decided not to try to add to the litany of lamentations regarding the final Star Wars trilogy installment, The Rise of Skywalker, but instead to comment on some aspects of the work of director J.J. Abrams that have been running through my head of late. It feels odd to focus on a director when most of the problem is with the script, but I have a friend I saw recently who works at Disney that gave me some insights with a touch of insider viewpoint. Apparently, there were contractual obligations to give the directors of this trilogy full creative control. Since George had spent his career fighting for this for his movies, I would not be surprised if that came from his side of the deal. But it does explain why the story went in such different directions under different directors, and why we can focus on those directors when we critique those stories. On that topic I will only point to Disney's own biggest mistake, which was that they did not map out the story on paper for all three movies before they started, as Mr. Lucas had always done. My friend tells me they rushed into The Force Awakens production in order to make the merchandising schedule for Christmas. If true, then that fact alone solidifies the accusation that Disney put the cash value of the franchise before the artistic integrity. But I digress - let's get back to Mr. Abrams.

I've always believed that Abrams is a bona fide fan of certain science fiction franchises, including Star Trek and Star Wars. But in his efforts to continue those franchises, it seems he does not have a good understanding of what constitutes good science fiction. He insists on taking old stories and retelling them again in a different context. Something he himself has referred to as the "reboot". Let's look at the Star Trek movies. In the first film, he takes elements and characters from the original series and changes the timeline so that he can start over with them. It is in some ways a clever script that tries to fill in gaps about Christopher Pike and the Kobyashi Maru test, but that came from other writers. The second installment, Into Darkness, tries to create a parallel story to The Wrath of Khan, even introducing Khan himself in a different timeline. The legendary exchange between Kirk and Spock at the end of the original movie is also duplicated to some extent, but with the essential emotional cost removed. I don't understand the point of this type of parallelism other than some cheap nostalgia, or even creative laziness. But it does illustrate my point about Abrams. He may be a fan of the work of others in this genre, but he just doesn't get it as a creator in the genre. One of the most essential aspects of good science fiction is that it introduces new ideas and concepts. It makes us think and look at things in ways we never may have thought of. This kind of story telling takes real effort and imagination and is why I love it so much. It is tougher even than the fantasy genre because it must remain grounded in reality in order to work its magic. Simply re-telling old stories in a different way is not creating science fiction. It is only trampling on the work of those that came before.

This leads up to the inevitable result of putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the final Star Wars trilogy. Some will fault Disney for switching directors mid stream, and rightly so, but we should also point out that even if Abrams had done all three films, they would have just been "reboots" of the original trilogy. We know this now that the final movie has been released under his wing. The Force Awakens is an obvious rework of A New Hope. You can see that Abrams intention for the second movie was to have Rey train under Luke in a remote location, just like Luke trained under Yoda in the second act of ESB. And when he returns for the third movie, Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine for the third act final conflict, just as he was there to oversee the final act in ROTJ. One official interview revealed that idea as coming straight from Abrams, thus proving that his only contribution to the story is to re-tell the originals. At the end of the day, Disney put the story in the hands of someone who couldn't deliver. His track record in the genre should have clued them in.

I feel a bit sad to post a mostly negative entry without a lot of substance, but I also hope it can add to the rest of the voices out there trying to process it all. If you are not a Star Wars fan then just ignore and move on to then next post.