James Gray

Ad Astra

22/09/19

Imagine, if you will, that in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard’s journey takes him not upriver to the dark heart of Vietnam, but out across the cosmos, to the Moon, Mars and ultimately Neptune – and you’ll have the essence of Ad Astra, a story about a son’s hazardous search for his lost father.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut famed for his self-control. In the film’s hair-raising opening sequence, he survives a terrifying near-death experience without so much as a discernible rise in his heart rate. But, capable though he undoubtedly is, that reserve has cost him his relationship with Eve (a barely glimpsed Liv Tyler), and he still suffers from the loss of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneering space explorer last seen approaching Neptune and long presumed dead.

But, when a series of catastrophic power surges threatens the very existence of the universe, evidence emerges that Clifford might still be very much alive out there and, what’s more, he may have caused those power surges. Roy is given a thankless mission: to head out to Jupiter to reunite with his father and, if he can, to save the world from destruction (so no pressure there).

Director James Gray (who helmed the much-underrated Lost City of Z) has created a fascinating and original slice of science fiction. The film somehow manages to balance ravishing planet-scapes and nail-biting action set-pieces with slower, more cerebral stretches, concentrating on Roy’s internal conflict as that legendary self-control starts to break down. It’s a long journey and an eventful one, taking in a colonised moon with branches of Virgin Atlantic and Starbucks, an eerily silent space-buggy chase and, best of all, a sequence where Roy has to make a forced entry onto a spaceship, seconds before it blasts off from its launch pad.

As his quest progresses, he is increasingly confronted with a terrible realisation – that his long-missed father might not be quite the hero that Roy has always believed him to be. Pitt does an extraordinary job in the lead role, managing to emote so much from behind a permanently impassive mask; it’s probably a career-best performance from him and one that may well get a nod at next year’s Oscars.

That said, Ad Astra is surely destined to be a marmite movie. Those who turn up expecting a rollicking space adventure are in for a severe disappointment. Those seeking something more meaningful, however, are likely to have a very good time with this, particularly those who opt for the eyepopping majesty of an IMAX screening

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Lost City of Z

06/04/17

Colonel Percy Fawcett was the quintessential ‘Boy’s Own’ hero. When he went missing deep in the Amazon jungle in 1924, along with his elder son Jack, he became a cause celebre. Many rescue attempts were mounted, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred men and there has been untold speculation ever since about what might have happened to them. James Gray’s film is an attempt to give us a fuller picture of Fawcett and his extraordinary life. It’s an unapologetically old fashioned movie, one that takes its own sweet time to tell its complex story.

When we first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in 1912, he’s an ambitious army officer, stationed in Northern Ireland. His attempts to further his career are constantly dogged by the bad reputation left by his dissolute father, but he is ably supported by his incredibly pragmatic wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). When Fawcett is approached by the Royal Geographical Society to helm an expedition into uncharted Bolivia, he sees an opportunity to advance his fortunes and readily accepts, even though it means he will have to leave Nina and his first child, Jack for what could be years. On route to Bolivia, Fawcett meets the man who will be his assistant, the taciturn Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and together they set off into the heart of the jungle. It is just the start of a whole series of explorations into the Mato Grosso and as time goes on, Fawcett becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of a lost ancient civilisation, the titular Z – but all attempts to find it seem doomed to failure and his speculations about it are greeted with general ridicule by everyone back in England, who cannot bring themselves to believe that such ‘primitive savages’ could ever have been so sophisticated.

The film lovingly recreates the era of intrepid exploration and Hunnam is an appealing Fawcett, but the slow, at times almost hallucinogenic nature of the proceedings certainly won’t be to everybody’s taste. Furthermore, though the film sticks closely to the facts for the most part, it cannot help but slip into the realms of speculation in the final furlong. The truth is we do not know (and almost certainly never will know) what actually happened to Fawcett and his son – indeed it is this very nebulous quality that has contributed to the legend.

Nevertheless, though far from perfect, this is an intriguing and sometimes enthralling production that deserves your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney