From Roland D. Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica), this highly ambitious 10 part series tells the story of a world where the global space race never ended, through the eyes of the astronauts, engineers and their families. Stars Joel Kinnaman and Australia's own Michael Dorman!
Protagonists, in stories of humans voyaging through space, are never simply individuals. They may carry their own unique personalities and traits, but more than anything else, they are presented as paragons of humanity, embodiments of the NASA ideal to send our best and brightest to traverse the unknown. Star Trek had its adventurous diversity, Alien had its utilitarian coldness, and the latest from Lost City of Z director James Grey has Brad Pitt’s Major McBride, a man running just as fast away from his angst, as he is bolting head-first directly into it.
The latest in the more recent crop of psychologically-charged space operas, such as Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian, this feature makes for the most explicitly psychiatric of that bundle. Its frequent interjections of McBride doing automated psychological tests – an upfront admission of the running motif of the mental strain of space travel that has been at the heart of the sub-genre for decades – show near-future mankind as being just as screwed-up as the present.
How little humanity has changed since beginning its quest for new worlds, and potentially new species, is stitched into every fibre of the film’s narrative and aesthetic. From its humdrum, almost domestic, depiction of commercial space flight, to the lunar space port that features ads for ‘Moon’s Got Talent’, the interstellar future presented here is one where mankind still hasn’t resolved its problems with itself, instead riding shotgun on their way beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Even outside of the blue marble, we are still as territorial, narcissistic and misguided as ever.
When put into context with McBride’s personal journey, taking him from the aquatic blue of Earth to the almost-Kleinian blue of Neptune in a bid to save his home from destruction, it presents a quietly frightening spin on the space opera that hasn’t gotten this scale of a mainstream boost this side of the new millennium.
Ad Astra contrasts the leap into new territory and possibilities with the underlying defiance of the earthbound past, aided by Tommy Lee Jones’ haunting and nigh-on spectral visage as McBride’s father, the film almost makes a mockery of the idea that man is trying to find life beyond the confines of Earth. If we can’t even treat the species on our own planet properly, chances are the same will be for any extra-terrestrials we may encounter.
While there are occasional moments of genre-weirdness between the lines – the rover-driving moon bandits or a memorable sequence involving a berserker monkey in zero-gravity – the framing, performances and pragmatic handling of the story let the true drama of the events sink in steadily. It’s a more classical brand of space opera, one that uses the trappings and visuals of science fiction to explore ideas that are unshakeably human and terrestrial. As scribed by Gray and Fringe writer Ethan Gross, and as captured by Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography, Ad Astra healthily sets itself apart from its competitors to make for a sombre and enriching hurtle through the stars.
About a third of the way into Nekrotronic, around the time the protagonists are sending a demon’s soul through a gigantic 3D printer so they can then destroy it with an enormous plasma gun, your brain may ask the question, “what the hell am I watching?” It’s a fair question, because Nekrotronic – the latest offering from Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead) – is as bullfuck crazy a cinematic offering as you’re likely to see this year. But perhaps a better question is, “am I enjoying the experience?”, because that will very likely be answered with an enthusiastic, “fucken oath!”
Nekrotronic tells the tale of affable-but-luckless sewage worker, Howard North (Ben O’Toole) who through an accident of fate thanks to his app-obsessed co-worker Rangi (Epine Bob Savea) discovers he is, in fact, a powerful Nekromancer and capable of seeing ghosts and battling demons. Howard is roughly taught the tricks of the trade by fellow Nekromancer, Luther (David Wenham) and his daughters, Molly (Caroline Ford) and Torquel (Tess Haubrich). Add to this the evil machinations of super-powered demoness Finnegan (Monica Bellucci), who plans to suck the souls of Sydney’s citizens simultaneously, and you’ve got the zany premise for 97 minutes of fast-paced, neon-hued insanity.
See, Nekrotronic’s story functions more as a video game cutscene, to give brief context for the next section of frenetic, action-packed fun, rather than a ponderous exploration of the world. Which is probably a good thing, because the story is frequently utter nonsense, albeit of an engagingly silly flavour.
The Roache-Turner brothers were clearly weaned on the cinematic teat of George Miller, Sam Raimi and John Carpenter, and the genre-crossing mash-up of The Matrix, Ghostbusters and a heavy helping of 1980s schlock comes together in a joyful explosion of enthusiastic insanity, cheerfully disregarding lofty notions of restraint or logic. There’s an agreeable ‘throw everything at the screen and see what sticks’ enthusiasm to the proceedings, which keeps things lively and unpredictable.
It’s not a perfect film, mind you. The first fifteen minutes are the weakest, with some awkwardly (and likely studio mandated) exposition bogging down the opening and a few attempts at quirky comedy that land with a thud. However, once the training wheels come off, the gleeful lunacy takes over and rarely relents.
Performance wise, Ben O’Toole is an agreeable everyman thrust into a situation beyond his comprehension and Caroline Ford is extremely convincing as a kick arse demon-hunter out for revenge. However, this is indisputably Monica Bellucci’s film and she absolutely nails the role, clearly relishing every goofy second that she’s on screen, chewing the scenery and sucking souls with great alacrity. Bellucci’s performance paired with the stunningly-realised practical special effects from Sydney’s own Make-Up Effects Group, not to mention Kiah’s ambitious, kinetic direction, all combine to make Nekrotronoic look and feel like a film much pricier than its relatively modest budget, and while it lacks some of Wyrmwood’s earthier charms, it frequently dazzles.
Nekrotronic is a deftly directed B-grade midnight movie with lashings of laconic Aussie humour and splattery set pieces. Boasting a vivaciously over-the-top performance from Monica Bellucci, oodles of slime-dripping demons and a clear adoration of 1980s cult cinema, it knows precisely what it wants to be and embraces that identity wholeheartedly. If that’s not your jam you’re unlikely to be converted, but audiences who appreciate that style of lunacy will suck it down like a fresh soul.
The modern cinematic landscape can feel a little… homogenised at times. Most films seem to be superhero blockbusters, adaptations of popular YA novels or cringingly mawkish Oscar bait. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for ‘middle class’ movies, ie. medium-budgeted flicks based on original screenplays and untethered to larger franchises. You’ll find plenty of them on streaming services, mind you, but precious few at the old picture house. Freaks, happily, is a great example of the value of said flicks, and illustrates beautifully why we miss them.
Freaks tells the tale of Chloe (Lexy Kolker), a young girl who apparently never leaves her house, thanks to the intervention of Dad (Emile Hirsch), who is either protecting her from a dangerous world outside the four walls of home or is, in fact, severely mentally ill and imprisoning her. This elegant set up gives the first half of Freaks a lot of tension and weight, but it also makes the plot difficult to discuss without spoiling, and this is the type of film that’s best to see without preconceptions. Needless to say, the story evolves along the way, and everything is thrown into a new light when Chloe braves the outside world and meets Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), who does a lot more than just flog Paddle Pops…
Freaks, from directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky, is a film that consistently punches above its weight. It’s directed with style and panache that far exceeds its budget level and features excellent performances from all, with young Lexy Kolker and Emile Hirsch making a very convincing daughter and father. The story is clever without being convoluted, reaching an exciting, heartfelt climax, and the broader allegorical nature of the themes raised makes it feel like a throwback to the golden age of 1970s sci-fi like Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976), but with a distinctly modern execution.
Freaks is an unexpected gem of a film, well-acted, well-written and well-shot, with timely themes and clever staging. While it’s not likely to change your life, it’s a thoroughly engaging 105 minutes and a nice reminder that ‘middle class’ movies, even though they’re the freakish outliers these days, can be just the ticket.