“Ad Astra” Film Review

A thought-provoking science-fiction exploration of the depths of self and space. Fox Searchlight’s Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones is a visually stunning tour de force that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey have I experienced such a pure science-fiction motion picture. The plot is so simple, yet the characters highly complex. And the questions posited by the film provide an opportunity to not only engage your senses but also your mind. On the surface, it’s a search and rescue; but beneath that premise, the conflict is built around the idea of man vs himself and father-son relationships. What happens to our minds and relationships when we devote ourselves so intensely to our academic or vocational pursuits that life is flying past us? More specifically, this film’s thesis can be summed up in one impactful, memorable quote from the movie, “he could only ever see what wasn’t there and missed what was right in front of his face.” Perhaps I do not have it quoted precisely correct, but that line spoke volumes to me. Because I will admit to you that I often become so consumed by my studies, social media presence, and what I do not yet have that I sometimes neglect to value what I have right in front of me. In many ways, this film serves as a mirror to not only me, but to all those who allow work or other ancillary elements of our lives to consume our every thought instead of appreciating the relationships we have and the needs/wants that have been met. Powerful stuff. Not only does this film deliver an outstanding original story, but the cinematography, score, editing, and production design are stellar. It’s a testament to the ability motion pictures have to evoke us emotionally and physiologically. We may spend most of the movie with one character, but it never feels boring (maybe a little slow in places, but definitely not boring). Certainly one to watch while it is in theaters for the full cinematic experience.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos. (IMDb)

While I compare this movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey, their respective plots are different, so it does not feel like a movie that secretly seeks to remake the science-fiction classic. The strength of Ad Astra lies in the exemplary screenwriting. We have a clearly defined central character, an external goal, and the subplot driven by the need that supports the motivation to achieve the goal. Every scene meticulously peals back layers that reveal to us the depths of Pitt’s character of Roy and consistently point us to his journey to locate his father on Neptune. Although Roy is not an extremely dynamic character, and there may not be a hero’s journey, we do witness a positive growth arc. In a manner of speaking, he experiences an existential redemption that corrects the course of his psychological trajectory. If you’re seeking a contemporary film that boasts an excellent opportunity for a character study, then the two principle characters in Ad Astra will be brilliant subjects. Jones’ character of Clifford McBride may not have nearly the screen time that his son has; however, his presence is felt throughout the film. We see the father in the son, and by extension we can extrapolate that Roy was on the path to become his father. Not unlike the path that Scrooge was on before his encounter with Marley and the three ghosts. Only when faced with the reality of what his future looks like, and the effects on friends and family thereof, does Roy see the need to change. Man is often his worst enemy, an enemy that we are eternally cursed to battle in perpetuity.

Not only does this film deliver outstanding writing, but it equally delivers mesmerizing visuals that earn the film high marks in technical achievement. Never do the effects detract away from the narrative, but they are incredibly impressive. Everything feels real. Like this is a story that could believably take place in say 2100 (maybe it could have been called 2100: A Space Odyssey). When speaking on science-fiction movies with my screenwriting students, I mention that many sci-fi screenwriters spend so much time on the technology and world building that the characters suffer. Needless to say, I will be able to use this movie as a prime example of how to write a character-driven science-fiction motion picture. The technology that is used in the film feels just a few decades ahead of what we presently have, so we can connect with the people and the technology that is used much better than in more fantasy-like science-fiction movies. The cinematography shines brightly in the dark of space. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this film was shot in space because of just how real the movement of the characters was and the technique through which each and every scene was lit and shot. So smooth are the movements of the camera and the editing that brings the story together that, as the audience, you forget that you aren’t a fly on the wall of this spectacular film.

Preparing for my own review, I often like to peruse what others have said. So I sometimes read reviews or listen to podcasts to get a feel for other opinions that are out there in order to expose myself to a wide variety of opinions as a way of collecting evidence to support my own opinion on a film. And upon doing that for this review, it didn’t take long before I came across a few options that fixated on the lack of screen time for Roy’s estranged wife  played by Liv Tyler. Furthermore, opinions along these lines suggested that there needed to be a more significant female presence in the film. I disagree with these opinions because this is a film about a father-son relationship and the idea of a man battling his own internal demons, so to speak. Liv Tyler plays an important role in representing that which Roy lost as a result of his self-centered career-driven behaviors. However, she also serves as a totem for him because it is the thought of a life without her entirely that brings Roy back to earth. She is an important character in this story despite not having much to say. Her presence is a powerful reminder to Pitt that he does not want to wind up like his father. Even if Tyler was not in the movie, at the end of the day, this IS a movie about the relationship between a father and son. While mother-daughter, mother-son, or father-daughter movies are much more common, there is a need in our cinematic library for father-son movies to explore those relationships.

Do yourself a father and go see Ad Astra in theaters! Experience it in Dolby Cinema or IMAX if you can because the visual spectacle elements of this film deserve that crystal clear, larger than life treatment. At little more than two hours, the film’s pacing is pretty good for most of the story; that being said, there are a few places that my attention did drift. But it wasn’t for long, and was always hooked again. Perhaps this movie could have been shortened to 1:45-50 instead of the just over 2hr run time. I am already thinking of seeing this film again, because I know there are elements that I may have missed the first time through.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“LIFE” movie review

Chilling! In space, no one can hear you scream. Although that tagline is associated with Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking space-horror Alien, director Daniel Espinosa’s LIFE delivers an intensely dark thriller that will have you screaming and cringing from the moment life on Mars is discovered. In the same vein as AlienLIFE is a science-fiction horror that may look like Gravity and might even have the strong orchestral sounds of Interstellar, but provides audiences with an entirely different experience. Borrowing from Alien and Gravity, Sony and Columbia Pictures craft a new space-horror narrative that can sufficiently serve as a standalone film–and be great in that–but also has potential for a sequel or two. Interestingly, there are parallels to Ridley Scott’s Alien beyond the premise; LIFE also features the same number of crew members and other more subtle elements. That being said, LIFE is definitely not a knockoff Alien nor is it trying to be Ridley Scott’s critically claimed film as it does not contain the social commentary on gender, sex, and family. However, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and LIFE pays both homage to the film that likely inspired it but delivers a comprehensive science-fiction horror experience that provides ample twists, turns, and even some emotional connection along the way.

A group comprised of engineers and researchers on board the International Space Station (ISS) are on the brink of one of the most important discoveries in human civilization: life on Mars. Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Sho Murkami (Hiroyuki Sandana), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Baker), and Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) represent several different counties, all working in cooperation on this groundbreaking mission. After the satellite, carrying the Martian sample, is retrieved from spiraling out of control towards the ISS is secured, the group of astronauts are faced with the crisis and task of retrieving it. After a daring retrieval, what should be a joyous discovery–something out of a scientists dreams–soon becomes a living nightmarish game of hide and seek. When the specimen from Mars begins to grow rapidly and become more and more intelligent, it stops at nothing to continue to feed the alien’s insatiable appetite and its goal to find a new home.

Initial impressions of LIFE leave you with noticing just how much like Alien it feels. It’s been nearly forty years since the Ridley Scott cinematic masterpiece, but in that time, no other science-fiction/horror film has come this close to delivering a similar (note: not as high on the cinematic totem pole as its predecessor) experience to that which first terrified audiences in 1979. One of the primary differences between Alien and LIFE is just how much closer to home this horrifying experience occurs. Whereas with the former, the alien encounter takes place hundreds of lightyears away, the latter’s narrative takes place just outside of our atmosphere on the ISS. Not that LIFE feels more intimate than Alien–it doesn’t–but the proximity of this story might add a little something more to the edge that you’re already sitting on as the horrific events unfold on the space station. Pacing is similar to Alien in that LIFE has a slow burn during the first act. To balance this slow burn or to keep audiences from thinking that it’s taking forever for the movie to really get started, the film begins with the “big event” right at the very beginning. The “big event” being the apprehension of the satellite carrying the Martian specimen. But for all it’s similarities, this movie provides a different experience that can certainly stand on its own. LIFE may have been inspired by Alien, but it is certainly not a ripoff.

I’ve been quite critical of the CGI-effects of films in more recent years, but the brilliance of the alien life form in LIFE is the degree to which it feels organic. In the beginning, the life form is little more than a single-celled organism; however, as the plot thickens, the organism begins to take a more chilling form and shape. Eventually, the alien develops a frightening grin and a mysterious-like form. One of the scariest parts of Ridley Scott’s Alien was the degree to which the Xenomorph feels so real that, even in your seat, you could feel the acidic slime and your body likely felt the excruciating pains of that iconic moment when the alien shoots out of the stomach. Part of that can be attributed to the use of pneumatics, animatronics, miniatures, and other practical effects standards. Yes, the alien life form in LIFE is computer-generated, but it also has a very real nature to it. Instead of focussing on how to make the alien as impressive as possible, it would appear that the special effects artists (whose work can be seen in the Transformers movies) focussed more on the small details that ordinarily give a CGI character away. Just like with the brilliant visual effects work in Ex Machina, the visual effects of the alien are flawless.

There is an inherent level of unpredictability in LIFE even after the unavoidable similarities to AlienLIFE plays around with the final girl trope and the killings have a strategy or method to their madness. Conspicuously missing from the characters of LIFE in a comparison to Alien is a Ripley-like character. Does the film portray strong female characters? Certainly. But LIFE keeps you guessing because the order of the deaths do not follow any predictable pattern. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of being predisposed to the order of the killings to be based up on star billing. Speaking of the characters, effectively managing an ensemble cast is always difficult. So often, some characters in the ensemble get lost or do not receive nearly as much development as the more obvious leaders. Not true with LIFE. True that there is not a large degree of character development all the way around, but each of the characters is treated with equal screen time and emphasis. That is, until death occurs. The excellent handling of this ensemble gives LIFE an extra dynamic that lacks in other ensemble cast films, thus helping this science-fiction horror to stand out from others that are similar in premise or plot. This movie has a “life” of its own.

2017 seems to be shaping up to be a year of excellent movies! We are just about to finish the first quarter of the year, and already there have been some great motion pictures. Furthermore, 2017 seems to be the year of the horror film because so many have made the theatrical distribution circuit. For those who love a good science-fiction thriller, you will not be disappointed with LIFE. Albeit the film may not be able to sustain the magic and horror for the entire runtime, it successfully delivers a terrifying experience for most of the film. If you don’t mind some cringeworthy moments and the dark tone of the film, then this is definitely one to see this weekend.

PS. I saw Power Rangers this week as well, and it was a delightful film! Yeah, it’s a little campy, but that’s to be expected. Definitely the best Power Rangers motion picture. All-in-all, it sufficiently pays homage to the 90s show but provides audiences with a new story. Go-go see it too!

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Hidden Figures” movie review

hiddenfiguresAn absolutely out-of-this-world biographical film! 20th Century Fox, PepsiCo, and TSG Entertainment present Theodore Melfi’s incredible film depicting the lives and careers of three African-American women whose work was extremely influential in the early days of NASA’s Mercury, Atlas, and Apollo missions. In all likelihood, there may not have been successful launches, orbits, and landings if it weren’t for these brave women who refused to back down and take the back seat to white men and women at a time that even government buildings still segregated restrooms, water fountains, and “community” coffee pots. Every once in a while, there is a biographical drama that packs a powerful socio-political message within a simple but brilliant story that is told incredibly successfully. Hidden Figures is a film that should have been released many years ago. How stories like this one go untold, is bewildering. Between the powerful performances, excellent writing, meticulous direction, and fantastic score, this is definitely a film to catch in theaters this weekend. Although Hidden Figures has been on a limited release since December, it receives its nationwide release this weekend and one to watch for when Oscar nominations are released.

Hidden Figures is the story of three absolutely brilliant African-American women who served as the problem-solving geniuses behind some of NASA’s greatest space operations in all of history including John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) first earth orbit and Alan Shepherd’s symbolic penetration of earth’s atmosphere into space. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) work as computers (the term used at the time before the conventional modern use) at NASA’s Langley facility near Washington D.C. Never assigned to a permanent position, these talented ladies work tirelessly to support NASA’s operations and aspirations of space exploration. At a time in which it was incredibly difficult for persons of color–much less women–to climb out of temporary and entry-level jobs, these women do not permit archaic societal norms to stop them from reaching their greatest potential as an engineer, programmer, and mathematician respectively. This untold story will move you as these three women, that society and NASA determined could not be more than computers, are significantly instrumental in launching the space program that indirectly united people from all over the world and cemented the U.S. as a then-leader in space exploration.

What a story! And the best part about it is that it is based on actual events and three real women who are responsible for the success of NASA’s early space programs and even help to launch some of the more contemporary missions. Unlike many biographical dramas, there is a comprehensive nature to this film as it contains two important stories. There is the foreground story featuring the women at the center of the movie, but there is also the story of the state of the U.S.’ domestic socio-political policies at a time of civil rights unrest–especially in places like Virginia. Both stories parallel one another and serve to pack a powerful punch. After watching this film, it is clear that this film wishes it had existed in the 1960s. Within the former story, the focus is primarily on the life and career of Katherine Goble followed by Dorothy Vaughn, and to a lesser extent, Mary Jackson. Each woman specializes in a different STEM (as it is now commonly referred) area. Katherine is a mathematical genius matched by none, Dorothy understands early computer language better than anyone at NASA, and Mary is an aspiring engineer with a brilliant mind for aerospace design. The latter story, underscoring the socio-political civil rights unrest, is certainly highlighted in the film but never takes the focus completely off the story in the foreground; however, is vitally important to this powerful story with a message that those who you least expect to rise to be leaders in their respective fields, can and will! Despite all the challenges coming from within the work place and the country itself, these three women prove that you should never be afraid to be the best. Being good, isn’t good enough. Be the best!

Although this is truly a powerful film with a beautiful message that is just as relevant today as it would have been 50 years ago, it never quite hits the mark that I had hoped it would and perhaps that is due to the PG rating. Suffice it to say, there are some remarkable scenes with powerful speeches, but the film is just shy of the level of intensely as it should have contained. I realize that some of what transpired in the Space Task room, wind tunnels, and courtroom may have been taken from transcripts for authenticity, as this is a movie, I feel that there should have been more of a dramatic license taken out to increase the emotional impact of the film. It certainly has a moderately high emotional impact, but there was definitely the potential to take it up several more degrees. Two scenes come to mind. (1) Katherine challenging the segregation policies at NASA as it relates to common comforts such as restrooms and coffee and (2) Mary petitioning the court to permit her enrollment for graduate level engineering classes held at an all-white school. Dorothy also has a couple of encounters with her superior (Kirsten Dunst) but they are more subtle–no less powerful and important to the film. In regards to the scene in which Katherine confronts Mr. Harrison, the scene feels a little cut short of where it should have ended and Mr. Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) response could have been more dramatic. When inside the courtroom as Mary was addressing the judge, this would have been the perfect time for a speech that would have brought a flood of tears to the eyes, but it stops short of where it could have gone too. Over all, the screenplay is excellently written. These are just two areas that I feel could have struck a more powerful emotional cord. As it is, these scenes are still some of the most brilliant in the film and leave an impact.

One of Mr. Harrison’s lines in the film contains a large degree of irony. The line was something to the effect of “How can the U.S. government justify NASA when it is consistently unable to get into and explore space?” The irony therein is seen in today’s defunding of NASA for, essentially, that very concept. NASA did not lose the bulk of its government funding due to any particular presidential administration but from remaining in the 80s and never launching into the 21st century. After the Space Shuttle program, NASA did very little to grow–its technology and engineering remained fairly stagnant. Sure, communication technologies greatly benefited from NASA engineers, but that is not what made NASA an exciting organization from the 60s thru the 90s. What made NASA great was the perception of being explorers–exploration excited a society! Once NASA no longer appeared to be focused on exploration and shifted its focus to communication technologies, it lost that public support that was such a part of what brought so many people together. In many ways, the perceptions and issues facing NASA prior to and during the early missions is plaguing it today. Instead of an inability to launch a man into space and orbit the earth (later to land on the moon), there is now the demonstrable evidence and perception that NASA has an inability to create manned vessels capable of exploring space. Satellites and camera are great, but nothing parallels the actual exploration of space by humans. If NASA could one again be seen as explorers, then perhaps a new generation would petition the government to once again proactively support the iconic organization.

Hidden Figures is definitely not to be missed while it is in theaters. It is a larger than life story that is best appreciated on the big screen. For those in the audience who remember the early days of NASA, there is plenty of vintage footage to accompany the modern cinematic storytelling in this film. Even Kennedy’s famous “we will go to the moon” speech is in this movie. More than a biography of the glory days of NASA, this is a story of three women who, against all odds, rose to the challenges they faced on a daily basis to prove that women are capable of anything that a man can do. Between breaking the sound barrier, gravitational pull, and paving the way for equal rights and treatment in the workplace, this film will hit close to home for many who know what it is like to feel oppressed for who they are.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Passengers” movie review

passengersAn intriguing journey with lots of potential but ultimately fails to pull into the space dock. The highly anticipated visually stunning science-fiction film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt proves one thing: Pratt and Lawrence have excellent on screen chemistry and play off each other very well. With films like this one, it’s hard to know where the fault lies. Typically, a film with such potential and a powerful cast is weakened by either the writing or directing. Since the director principally works with the cast, it can be concluded that the writing lacked the drive that this film needed. On a more positive note, this film depicts deep space travel how it could likely be in the not-so-distant future. From the centrifugal force created by the rotating space craft to simulate how artificial gravity could be generated to the onboard technology to the sickbay, this film does a fantastic job of providing audiences with a science-fiction that is almost tangible. Having such a limited cast in one location can spell disaster for cinematic storytelling; but, the film is quite interesting to watch and sufficiently keeps the audience’s attention. Furthermore, the audience mostly connects with Aurora (Lawrence) and Jim (Pratt) well enough. But, the film fails to truly provide audiences with a new adventure because it amounts to a glorified Castaway set in the Disney Springs of shopping malls in outer space–just completely empty of scooters, strollers, and other park guests. Lack of surprise pretty well sums it up.

Welcome aboard The Avalon on the Homestead Company’s routine transport to Homestead II, a new earth colony. All is going well until two passengers find themselves awakened from suspended animation about 90 years too early during a cascade of ship wide malfunctions. Faced with living the rest of their respective lives on board and only the company of an AI bartender (Michael Sheen), Jim and Aurora must cope with the challenges of living together in a world that is merely 1000 meters from stem to stern. When the ship begins to increasingly malfunction and life support at risk, Jim and Aurora much solve the mystery of what originally caused the problem that began the cascade. Just as the ship is keeping a secret, there are other dark secrets on board the ship as well. Meeting with psychological, emotional, and engineering challenges, Jim and Aurora have 5000 other passengers and crew to save while maintaining their own sanity and psycho-social health.

As the movie faded to black, I began discussing it with the friends who accompanied me to the cinema last night. And we shared a mutual reaction of hmm, not exactly sure what this was or how to read it but it had some interesting components. And that pretty well covers it. The film will likely keep you entertained but with few surprises, it lacks anything to make it memorable in a positive way. Forgettable is what this movie will become in the no-so-distant future. Essentially, Passengers is what you would get if Gravity and Titanic were to have a baby. Star-crossed lovers on a ship that is self-destructing in the vacuum of space. One of the most intriguing components in the plot of the film is also highly disturbing. While love and infatuation causes many to go to great lengths in order to see desire become reality, it is a double-edged sword that can cause one to behave selfishly if not displaying signs of sociopathy. While Pratt’s performance is what is to be expected from one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood who is equally a dedicated family man, his performance is never quite on par with his Castaway counterpart. However, Lawrence delivers an intense performance as she plays off Pratt,the bartender, and The Avalon itself.

The cinematography and editing are excellent. In fact, the technical elements of the film are impressive! Not quite as groundbreaking as Gravity or Interstellar but still outstanding. There is one scene in particular that still has me puzzled as to how it was able to be achieved so flawlessly. The set design, albeit spartan, is beautifully sleek and functional. As film is a visually driven medium of storytelling, the camera often pulls in close to characters to establish intimacy but juxtaposes that against pulling back to reveal the oppressive loneliness of being alone on a massive ship in space. For a brief moment, I experienced the dread that is created in Kubrick’s The Shining when Jim meets Arthur the bartender. Interestingly, the music (composed by Thomas Newman), camera direction, dialog, blocking, an set design all work together seamlessly to establish that unparalleled sense of dread, loneliness, and self-destructive despair that are so iconic to The Shining. Unfortunately, that powerful sense of dread is lost in weak writing. Had the film embraced the potential to channel The Shining, it may have played out more memorably. But, this is a love story so the horror plot devices that could have helped the film were not integrated into the plot. Although there are may significant contributors to a film’s success, the success of a film often relies upon the direction, writing, and cast. As briefly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the director (Morten Tyldum) of a film principally works with the cast and is responsible for blocking, delivery of dialog, and perception; so, it is likely the screenplay by Jon Spaihts that is responsible for the weak story. A director and cast can work hard to makeup for a weak screenplay, but in this case, the lack of developed story showed through.

Despite sharing the screen with Aurora, this truly is Jim’s movie and others simply happen to appear in it when necessary. As a side note, I could easily see how this film could be translated into a stage production. Perhaps on stage, the story could evolve to leave more of an impact on the audience.