Thoughts on Ad Astra, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Succession, Undone, and more.
The melancholy tenor of Ad Astra should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with James Gray’s work — especially 2016’s The Lost City of Z, which was also about a lonely man looking for meaning in the unknown. Ad Astra isn’t The Martian, or Gravity, or even Interstellar (though it probably shares the most in common with the latter). It’s its own beguiling journey.
Written by Gray and Ethan Gross (Fringe), Ad Astra is set in a near-ish future where the United States Space Command (NOT “Space Force”) has constructed a heavens-scraping antenna to search for extra-terrestrial life, and established outposts as far out as Mars. When Roy McBride (a finely languid Brad Pitt) survives a fall to earth in the film’s dizzying opening sequence, he is given a new mission: To find what’s left of the Lima Project, the station orbiting Neptune that may be sending devastating electrical pulses across the solar system, and, if necessary, eliminate its leader — who happens to be his father (Tommy Lee Jones).
But it’s far more than a celestial Apocalypse Now with daddy issues; Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created a truly beautiful film, lingering on meditative moments to bask in its visuals. This goes hand-in-hand with Pitt’s understated performance, a few degrees off from Ryan Gosling’s in First Man, and similarly effective at making you focus on his eyes, and his stillness, instead of the actor’s famous charisma.
Moreover, it’s impossible not to watch the film without pondering its deeper themes. McBride goes up against every form of dramatic conflict on his journey: Man vs. Man, Nature, Self, and finally, God. While Ad Astra isn’t without its thrilling action beats (moon pirates!), it’s the spiritual dimensions that linger. If we’re truly alone in the universe, is humankind doomed to the same self-defeating cycles? How do you maintain your sense of wonder when we’ve put an Applebee’s on the moon? When McBride suggests later that “We’re all we’ve got,” it’s not just a call to unity as humankind continues to scrabble for resources, but to the rueful desire for meaning, and something beyond ourselves, that makes us uniquely human.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
You don’t have to know anything about the original The Dark Crystal to be completely enraptured by Age of Resistance. You can trust me on that, because I’m one of those people with a blind spot for Jim Henson & Frank Oz’s cult classic — I also made the intentional choice not to watch it ahead of Netflix’s prequel series, the better to judge it on its own merits.
And let me tell you, Age of Resistance is a masterpiece. On every level. The astonishing production design, with the indefatigable puppeteers of the Henson Workshop pulling off impossible feats by the minute. The exceedingly likable voice cast. The top-flight fantasy storytelling, which is initially set up via a Sigourney Weaver-narrated prologue, then reinforced later in the season with an honest-to-goodness puppet show-within-a puppet show, the funniest sequence of the series.
It even has an answer for that old prequel problem: How do you make audiences care when the outcome is already known, especially if that outcome is Gelfling genocide? By making the characters imminently adorable, rootable, and recognizably human; by leaning into the tale’s allegorical nature (Climate change! Anti-authoritarianism!); and by teasing that the future we think we know may not be written in stone.
It’s hard to pick MVPs in a cast that already includes terrific turns from Taron Edgerton, Andy Samberg, Jason Isaacs, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bill Hader, Lena Headey, Anya Taylor-Joy, Benedict Wong, Mark Hamill, Awkwafina, and so many more, but I can narrow it down to three. As the lovable Deet, the Grottan heroine who is tapped into the lifeblood of the planet, Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei on Game of Thrones) exudes warmth and decency on top of Beccy Henderson’s expressive puppeteering. Her partner, the potato-faced podling/aspiring paladin Hup, is performed and voiced by Victor Yerrid, and he rules.
The most impressive of them all is a nearly unrecognizable Simon Pegg as the Skeksis Chamberlain. It’s a brilliant continuation of the character Frank Oz created — the lone pragmatist among the “Lords of the Crystal,” willing to manipulate ally and enemy alike to come out of any situation on top. Every head turn (performed by Warrick Brownlow-Pike) and “Mmmmmmm?” builds new layers of deviousness, but we understand him fully… and almost, almost, like him.
All ten episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier, who is clearly a madman, and also clearly born to bring this series to life. He doesn’t let the mechanics limit the storytelling at all, combining handheld camerawork with state-of-the-art puppeteering and clever, subtle CGI. Watching the making-of documentary, you hear the crew marvel about how Leterrier had the entire series visualized in his head, and that fanatical attention to detail is borne out in what is, for me, a top-3 series of 2019. I loved it, my kids loved it (they didn’t think it was too scary!), and I hope Netflix asks for more.
Created by BoJack Horseman‘s Kate Purdy & Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Undone is truly a rare animal: A brisk, engaging, stunningly realized story, and almost certainly the most binge-able new series of 2019. It centers on Alma (a star-making turn from Rosa Salazar), a self-destructive woman in San Antonio (YOOOOO) who survives a devastating car crash and wakes up with a secret: Her dead father (Bob Odenkirk) wants to teach her how to time travel, so she can not just find out the truth about how he died, but actually bring him back.
This has shades of Inception and Lost‘s “The Constant,” (with a dash of Mr. Robot, for good measure), but Purdy, Bob-Waksberg, and series director Hisko Hulsing keep it fresh throughout. Undone’s dreamlike animation style, using a rotoscoping technique à la Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, is perfectly suited for the heady material. We’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s in Alma’s mind, and the seamless transitions between the two — flashing through the cosmos to Alma’s fateful crash, and back again; taking do-overs on fraught moments with her family — doesn’t just accentuate Undone‘s mesmerizing otherworldliness, but expands upon it. It just wouldn’t feel the same in live action.
It doesn’t help Alma’s situation that her life before the crash is also a mess; she had just broken up with her boyfriend (a sweetly nerdy Siddharth Dhananjay), her job at a day care (where her boss is Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) feels like a dead end, and her sister (Angelique Cabral) just got engaged to a lame white guy. But the crash brings something else to the surface, too: her family’s history of mental illness. Undone deals with this fairly deftly, if ambiguously, threading a needle between whether her brain chemistry is fueling these abilities (or the other way around), or if she’s tapping into a magic that’s much, much older. Indigenous tradition plays as much a part as university lab experiments, and the series cleverly doesn’t tip its hand one way or the other, even right up until the end.
But as cool and interesting as time travel always is, the characters are memorable enough on their own, beginning with Salazar’s fierce, funny performance — oil to Odenkirk’s reliably still water. Also, like the recent Fleabag, Undone thoughtfully captures a relationship between sisters who constantly butt heads but would give everything for each other. As their high-strung, deeply religious mother, Constance Marie has fewer notes to play, but every scene with this family unit feels authentic — especially when they’re playing out on a painterly Riverwalk, at the Alamo (which Alma spectacularly — and accurately — dunks on), or at a hospital “cactus garden.” As a native San Antonian, the only thing missing was a reference to the Spurs.
Undone is one of the year’s biggest surprises, and yet another crown jewel in a jam-packed month for television.
Succession, Season 2 (HBO)
The best series currently on television, however, is Succession. And considering how many questions there were upon its debut last year (mainly “Do we really want to watch a show about horrible rich people?”), that it has wound up as the ideal show for this present moment is worth celebrating all on its own. The first season was a bit of potboiler, not truly taking flight with Kendall Roy’s first failed attempt at usurping his father’s empire, but the second season has been firing on all cylinders since the jump, with the ensemble of misanthropes and power-mad doofuses as finely tuned and balanced as a fancy watch you secretly give to a contractor because your children embarrassed him.
Everyone in the cast is operating on another level, but I want to particularly single out Jeremy Strong, whose gives Kendall’s bottomless self-loathing a striking amount of pathos. Succession is often a pitch-black comedy, but it is simultaneously a full-blown Shakespearean tragedy as the King Lear-esque Logan (Brian Cox, legend) actively denies his own slow deterioration as his unfit, uncouth children jockey for the throne of an empire the deviant Roman (Kieran Culkin, electric) says is best known for “hate speech and roller coasters.”
As Waystar fends off a “bear hug” buyout from Kendall’s ex-accomplices, Logan cruelly dangles a CEO-shaped carrot before daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook, superb) as his only truly competent child, only to conspire with a hungrier new player (Holly Hunter!) to blame Shiv’s own “disloyalty” and ambition for him snatching it away again. Succession makes you feel every emotion in the course of an hour: Shock, disgust, elation, and deep, deep amusement. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the saga of frenemies Tom and Cousin Greg (or, as he now insists, “Gregory”), with the latter psyching himself up to become a whistleblower, and the unctuous Tom just crafty enough to see it coming, but not competent enough not to sabotage himself anyway.
From its exploits of the grotesquely rich (the location scouting, from the estates to the Hungarian hunting lodges to the spartan high-rise apartments, is such a huge element of what makes Succession tick) to its depiction of corporate and personal malfeasance performed by desperate, doomed souls, to its endlessly quotable, battery-acid dialogue, Succession is the kind of show that you have to watch through your fingers but can’t stop thinking about it when its over. It’s like if Mamet had written Glengarry Glen Ross about a family made entirely of delusional Blakes, and I can’t get enough of it.
- File The Terror: Infamy under “mild disappointment,” though there are still a few episodes to go. The anthology series didn’t really click this season until the sixth episode, “Taizo,” when the backstory and motivation of the skittery, bloodthirsty yurei was finally revealed… and she just wants her son back. It’s a handsomely mounted production, and as relevant to 2019 as the writers hoped, but has lacked the narrative clarity (and deeper acting bench) of the exemplary first installment.
- The Good Place is back for its final season! More on this next month, but last night’s premiere was as clever and charming as ever.
- I was also won over by the pilot for NBC’s Sunnyside, which Mike Schur also has a had in alongside Community’s Matt Murray and co-star Kal Penn. And it definitely has Community vibes, as the premiere sets up a similar story of a slimy, underachieving politician who ends up helping a group of eclectic yet vulnerable would-be American citizens. It’ll need some time to find its feet, as most sitcoms do, but I’m definitely giving it a shot.
- Movie catch-up: Our first rental this month was Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which is not only one of the best teen movies of our age, but one of the best films of the year. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are brilliant as two nerdy best friends who get fed up that their obnoxious classmates are getting into the same top schools anyway, and on the eve of graduation set out to make up for all the reckless partying they’ve deprived themselves of. It’s terrifically funny, well-paced, painfully real, and Billie Lourde steals every scene she’s in as a space cadet who seemingly pops up everywhere at once.
- We also saw Aladdin, which at least met my mediocre expectations. Most of the musical numbers fall flat (and have been “updated” for seemingly no reason), but as the Genie, Will Smith is actually… good? I dunno. I’ve already forgotten everything.
- Men in Black International is a big dud, and all of the Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson Ragnarok chemistry can’t paper an uninspired story that clearly had a troubled, haphazard production. Too bad.
- Our ongoing first-time journey through Star Trek: The Next Generation brought us through Season 3. Favorites include: “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Deja Q,” “A Matter of Perspective,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father,” and of course “The Best of Both Worlds.”
Looking ahead to… Uh, this is where it starts to get crazy. In film: the controversial, Golden Lion-winning Joker (10/4); Cannes-winning Korean thriller Parasite (10/11); Taika Waititi’s Toronto Audience Award-winning Jojo Rabbit (10/18); The Lighthouse, which… well, just watch the trailer (10/18); and blockbuster Netflix releases like Breaking Bad movie sequel El Camino (10/11) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (10/18). In Television: the final season of Mr. Robot (10/6); USA’s Treadstone, set in the world of Jason Bourne (10/15), HBO’s much-hyped Watchmen (10/20), and the first half BoJack Horseman‘s final season (10/25). And that’s just October!