Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.  I did really enjoy his many psych evaluations where he made verbal reports such as:

  • “I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”
  • “I’m steady, calm, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities. I will remain calm. I will remain focused.”
  • “I’m calm, steady. I slept well, eight point two hours, no bad dreams. I am ready to go, ready to do my job to the best of my ability. I am focused only on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which isn’t important. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”

I even looked some of these up to use as affirmations in preparation for a stressful event recently.

So what about the film irritated me and to my mind hold it back from true greatness? Spoilers ahead.

First, while the space scenes were visually spectacular, the technology looked identical to that used for the moon landings. The rocket used to leave the earth was a multistage rocket just like the Saturn 5, we even saw the boosters falling away as it left earth atmosphere. OK, but the rocket from the moon to Mars also looked similar, and yet the trip was to be done in 17 days.  That is an order of magnitude faster than NASA thinks it can achieve.  On top of that, they stopped along the way to investigate a distress signal from another spacecraft which was drifting. Then apparently accelerated again and got to Mars within days not weeks or months.  My sons disagreed with me, and said almost certainly they had much better fuel, engines etc and just didn’t dwell on the technology. Even so, it just seemed jarring to me to have a trip to Uranus and back in months using technology that looked identical to that used in the 1960s.

This continued on the moon when they travelled to the dark side in lunar rovers looking just like those of the Apollo expeditions, right down to the space suits they wore as they sat in the open rovers.  Once on Mars, surface transportation were little bus-like vehicles with no need for space suits.  Back to the moon, they were attacked by space pirates also wearing space suits and riding open rovers.  This really made me incredulous. The movie did say that there were multiple bases from a number of countries, and mining companies, and quite a few people on the moon. But it defies my imagination to think that the US base would not have surveillance, and that a lunar surveillance satellite would not be able to spot and track all outside movement on the lunar surface and alert McBride and his companions to unknown vehicles approaching.

The other limitation was the theme of McBride seeking out his father, dealing with Daddy issues, and returning to earth a changed man who will give priority to his loved ones. This is pop psychology and the movie did not really go beyond the simplistic here.  There really was not much of a deep dive into either father or son’s issues, or the broader issue of other life in the universe, on which some of the psychology was hung.  Though Interstellar did not go too much deeper, I found it a much more moving and thought-provoking movie than Ad Astra.

I think the viewing public must have had some similar thoughts.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score was high at 83% and the audience score wa 42%. Similarly, on Metacritic, the critics score 80% and the user score is 59%.  Typical of some of the user reviews was the following comment: In space, no one can hear you cry about your absent-daddy issues.”

The movie is worth seeing, if only to see Brad Pitt in a very different role. Where his beauty is largely hidden and we get to see only his eyes through a space helmet visor.  But it misses greatness in my view.

The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I wanted to see Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes place in a loving recreation of late-’60s Los Angeles. I knew that it starred one of my favorite actors, Brad Pitt, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie and was set in 1969 at the time of the Manson murders. But that was all. I asked my older son if he was interested to see it and he came along. I was a teenager in last years of high school in 1969 and very clearly remember the Manson murders, as well as later reading a book by the prosecutor who got Manson and his followers convicted and sentenced to death. So I was quite interested to see what Tarantino would make of this material and era.  We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, of which more below, but in our discussion after the movie ended, I discovered that we had had two extremely different experiences, as if we were watching two different movies.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cast

Warning: this post will contain major spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”. I strongly recommend that you don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to. It really will be a much more satisfying movie if you don’t already know the plot.

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Stand on Zanzibar

My older son has been voraciously reading science fiction novels from the golden age of SF, namely the 1960s and 1970s. I say the golden age, because I was his age in the 1960s and at university in the 1970s, and read all the same novels.  I have more than once told him that I read almost all of the “good” or “important” SF and authors of that period.  My interests veered into fantasy of the Tolkien type, but at the same time the immense proliferation of second rate Tolkien copiers in the 1970s (think Terry Brooks: Shannara etc) led to me ceasing to try to read all the important authors as they were published.

I also got rid of much of my extensive SF library with time, keeping only a few authors that I particularly enjoyed (think Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny….) and now I am buying my son SF novels from Amazon that I once used to own.

My son recently read “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner and raved about it, said I had to read it. It has a huge reputation, made a big impact, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Fifty years after its first publication in 1968, it is considered one of the greatest SF novels of the period, and is still regularly reviewed and discussed.

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Ulysses and book burning in Australia

Today the 16th June is Bloomsday, a celebration of the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set on that day in 1904, the day of his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.

This lengthy novel has been highly controversial, and has been banned in various countries. It is written using a stream-of-consciousness technique, with careful structuring based on Homer’s Odyssey. Its revolutionary technique and experimental prose as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history.

I read Ulysses as an undergraduate during my daily commutes by train to and from Sydney University. I was particularly taken with the final chapter of Ulysses in which Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold and her thoughts are reported as a stream-of-consciousness 42 pages in length. I think I read a paperback edition that belonged to my father. I remember him during that period quoting to me the following passage highlighting Leopold Bloom’s adoration for his wife Molly, because he loved the sound of the words:

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”
                James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 17 “Ithaca”.

My father and before him my great-Uncle John (1895-1975) were book collectors and I have kept some of their books, including a copy of the first edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. After the initial printing of 1000 numbered copies in 1922, my great-uncle acquired a copy in 1927 from the 8th print run of May 1926.

Title page

A publishing history of Ulysses can be found at antwerpjamesjoycecenter.com

I knew that Ulysses had been banned in Australia for some time and looked up the dates. it was not banned until 1929, then released in 1937, only to be restricted again in 1941 after pressure from Catholic organizations. This ban was lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

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12 Rules for Life (part 2)

This is the second half of my review of “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist who has become an internet sensation.  The first half of my review can be found at 12-rules-for-life-jordan-peterson

Rule 7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

Peterson again turns to the Old Testament to the story of Paradise and the Fall as a guide to Being and right action. He prefaced this with a quite good explanation of how myths and legends encode guidance on Being, action and meaning based on human experience and behaviours that have evolved over a long period of time. But why he thinks Bronze Age myths are still our best source of understanding of these things, and ignores the important evolution of human societies and understanding in recent centuries, I don’t know.

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Avengers: Endgame

I took my younger son to see Avengers: Endgame on the big IMAX 3D screen the day after it was released. The theatre was almost full, unusual for Geneva. My older son went later in the evening, and he and his friends got the last remaining seats in row A, only two or three metres from the screen.  He claims he enjoyed it and didn’t really notice he was almost in the action.

The movie is long at three hours, but we didn’t notice the passing of time. Lots of emotional scenes, if anything a bit overdone for my taste. But still satisfying, and overall, the movie certainly wraps up the entire arc of the Avengers cycle of movies in a deeply satisfying way. There are lots of good reviews out there and I won’t try to cover the same ground. Rotten Tomatoes has quite a few critics reviews and the Tomatometer has a score of 95% and audience score of 91%. IMDB has a rating of 9 out of 10.

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