A group of people are stuck in a confined space, suspended in an environment that they can’t survive, while some manner of mysterious force lays in wait outside. Bread-and-butter isolation thrills, the kind that is bare minimum for genre filmmaking and a framework that really needs all the spice it can get to stand out amongst its crowded competition. And to the credit of director William Eubank (Love, The Signal), all the right ingredients seem to be on-hand to make for a cool film.
For sheer atmosphere, Underwater looks and sounds pretty damn good. The production design hits a weird sci-fi middle-ground where it feels appropriate techy, but without tying it down to a specific timeframe, be it contemporary or that of a theoretical future. The overwhelmingly murky visuals courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (6 Underground, A Cure For Wellness) combine with the effective sound design, giving the ocean depths a suitably otherworldly vibe, adding to the occasional musings on how humanity may have dug too deep and awoken something dangerous.
Screenwriters Brian Duffield (Jane Got A Gun, The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) bring a reasonable amount of thematic chew to the narrative. Allusions to Alice In Wonderland, a reiteration of the need to work together that itself lives deep down in the genre’s DNA, a sideways justification for its comic relief where even the cheesiest shit is palatable in the face of unrelenting fear; it’s alright on paper, but something got lost in translation from paper to actors’ mouths.
Pretty much everyone here has a healthy pedigree for being watchable through sheer personality, but the director seems to have taken that for granted because they aren’t given much to do. All that emphasis on atmosphere means that characterisation ends up falling by the wayside, as the bulk of the cast feel like throwaways. The only exceptions to that are K-Stew in the lead, who is basically coasting on her brewing resurgence in the popular consciousness, Vincent Cassel as every captain of a sinking ship you’ve ever seen before, and T.J. Miller as one of the more tone-deaf embodiments of comic relief in recent memory. Even with the film’s own admissions of the quality of his quips, they still don’t register as intended.
So, everyone on-board is in the right place, and there’s a vein of originality that could give this seemingly-tired narrative a fresh twist. Then why is this so bloody boring? It should not be possible to make K-Stew v. Cthulhu dull to sit through, but these guys seem to have managed it. Not that it’s completely Dude-awful or anything, but it still feels like a selection of the best ingredients getting warmed-over in the microwave. Not even mixed or arranged in any particular way; just thrown in haphazardly. This can only be recommended if your affinity for any of the actors is that strong that you’ll watch them in anything.
The Star Wars sequel trilogy, comprising The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017) and Rise of Skywalker (2019) has been a weird, disjointed game of push me, pull you. The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams, arrived on a frothy wave of nostalgia that was almost enough to make you ignore the fact that the story was essentially a soft reboot of A New Hope (1977), complete with a ‘what if Death Star but more?’ central conflict and an antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who was a Sith stan, essentially lobbing about in Darth Vader cosplay!
Rian Johnson’s divisive The Last Jedi followed, and remains one of the most beautifully shot blockbusters in recent memory. It’s also saddled with a spectacularly cack-handed script that includes highlights such as: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – a bloke who was once willing to lay down his own life to save his dad – attempting to murder his best mate’s kid in his sleep, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) fanging around the cold vacuum of space like Mary Poppins after a fat line of bathtub goey and the longest, dullest second act “chase” between two incredibly slow ships that defies even the low standard of logic and pacing set by previous Star Wars entries.
Which brings us to The Rise of Skywalker, a film that was handed back to J.J. Abrams after originally slated director Colin Treverrow got shitcanned for reasons that will no doubt become clear at some point in the future. And the result is… messy but okay? See, this is where the push me, pull you thing comes in. J.J. Abrams had his own plan, which Rian Johnson subverted and then J.J. had to come back and retcon a bunch of things to make his story fit, and the end result is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a story that feels so micromanaged and inconsistent it’s almost avant garde.
The story revolves around our returning heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a mostly-CGI Leia on their quest to find several McGuffins that are littered about in various expensive-looking locations. They’re doing this to help combat the return of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Oh yeah, Palpatine’s back. This is revealed in a blunt, tension-free fashion in the opening minutes and never explained to any degree of satisfaction. In fact, that describes the film as a whole, full of action and call-backs and stuff occurring, but very little downtime to reflect on anything. That said, if you can channel your inner twelve-year-old there is enjoyment to be had. The design of Star Wars is, as usual, peerless. Iconic ships, soldiers, monsters and locations fill the screen with cheerful frequency, doing their best to mask the deep deficiencies of the script.
And by the way, despite sticking the boot into The Last Jedi (deservedly so, in all honesty), we’re genuinely not here to slag off Rian Johnson or even J.J. Abrams. No, the biggest problem with this Star Wars sequel trilogy is that they seem to be making it up as they go along; reactive writing is rarely good writing, which these movies illustrate all too clearly. The plan for this trilogy should have started with a killer premise, followed by three rock solid treatments, followed by three finished, polished and ready-to-shoot screenplays that were then adhered to. Writing is the cheapest part of the process and yet for some reason the powers that be spent the least amount of time on it. Well, this is what you hath wrought. A thin, inconsistent, occasionally baffling trilogy that captured nary but a fraction of the soul of the original films.
Star Wars is a hugely important cultural touchstone to many, but in all honesty this sequel trilogy is a bit of a mess. The Rise of Skywalker is just the latest example of the same, and while it has some fun moments, solid performances and striking imagery, it’s simply too procedural and soulless to be anything more than adequate. Kids, the actual intended audience for this, will likely have a decent time, but for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to accept that Star Wars’ time in the sun is over. At least until they hire some writers and belt out a decent script.
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.