Three films worth consideration

By Leonard Heldreth
Our films this month include two completely different science fiction films and a biopic about one of the world’s great voices, Judy Garland.


James Gray’s Lost City of Z was underappreciated because of a number of reasons. It didn’t wrap everything up into a tidy ending, it offered a somewhat unconventional and perplexing father-son relationship, and it explored the ways colonialism exploits conventional masculinity. While Gray’s Ad Astra deals with many of the same issues, it either handles them better or audiences see them as less of a problem the second time around. The addition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a partial framework for the narrative may also have made some of the concepts easier to grasp.
“Ad Astra” means “to the stars” and refers, perhaps ironically, to humanity’s efforts to locate intelligent life outside our solar system. The film opens with workmen on a tall space antenna designed for reaching other species, but a surge of electrical energy from the area beyond Neptune causes parts of the antenna to overload and explode. Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who is working on the antenna, manages to shut down its electrical connection before losing his grip and plunging toward the ground in what may be a symbolic fall.
When McBride recovers in the hospital (his parachute saves him), he finds that he has been assigned to a new mission. He is to travel to the moon and then to the far side of Mars where he will attempt to send a message to his father, Clifford McBride, an astronaut and space hero. Clifford’s anti-matter experiments in the Lima project may have been responsible, the military thinks, for the power surges sweeping across the solar system.
The rest of the film has three parts: Roy’s trip to the moon, his mission to Mars and then his step out into the unknown near Saturn. There are complications and interruptions in each of these–a pirate attack on the moon, a call for help from a medical research spaceship, and statements from people that he meets who suggest that the information provided by the military is false.
Underpinning Roy’s mission is his relationship with his father, whom he feels abandoned him when Roy was 12, in favor of pursuing the search for intelligent life. The boy, as a result, learned to suppress his emotional life so deeply that his pulse never goes above 80. “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize,” he tells the audience in voice-over narration, but the perceptive viewer soon sees that Roy is also avoiding as much human contact as possible–even with his wife.
When Roy reaches Jupiter, what he finds there forces him to confront his most buried fear—that he has become emotionally like his father and therefore possibly mentally unstable. How Roy then removes the threat of the Surge, returns to earth, and wraps up the story is clearly laid out, although the science behind some of it is laughable–aim yourself in the direction you want to go before setting off a nuclear explosion behind you!
Gray says the film draws heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and visually that is accurate. It also, however, models the relationship between Roy and his father after the one between Kurtz and Marlowe in Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. A person too much in isolation can lose his accurate perceptions of other people and become entangled in his own illusions, as Roy’s father does.
The acting is excellent, with Brad Pitt giving one of the best performances of his career and Tommy Lee Jones impressive as the elder McBride. Add in the outstanding photography with the special effects based on NASA photographs and films, and Ad Astra should appeal to science fiction fans as well as those interested in how parents inadvertently shape their children’s emotional lives.


Science fiction films are generally positive and often upbeat as they look to the future. Aniara does not follow that formula. Based on a Swedish epic poem written in 1956 by Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson, it was adapted into an opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl in 1959 and made into a film in 1960. It has also inspired some rock albums.
The plot is simple and downward spiraling. As the film opens, colonists are leaving the destroyed earth to board a transport, the “Aniara,” a huge vessel that looks like a flattened aircraft carrier. It will transfer them to Mars where they will join a colony already established. But collision with space debris forces the ship to jettison its nuclear fuel and leaves the passengers adrift in space. As years pass, they begin to realize their predicament, and the social structure on board the ship deteriorates.
Although the ship can grow algae for food and provide enough other amenities to sustain life, the future looks increasingly dull and boring. There is obviously only one conclusion, but many, many years must pass before everything and everybody runs down. Just don’t expect the Millennium Falcon to come space-warping to the rescue.


Biopics about famous people tend to follow a standard plot arc, and Judy is no exception. Although certain aspects of the plot may be more emphasized in one version than another, the “facts” are usually massaged to make the plot more interesting since the outcome, after all, is known to most of the audience.
Right now biopics seem to be hot. Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for an Oscar for best picture in 2019; and its star, Rami Malek, won the best actor Oscar. Rocketman, the biopic of Elton John, was nominated this year for best picture in the Golden Globes awards, while its star, Taron Egerton, won best actor, and Elton John’s new song won the best song award in the same competition. Then Renée Zellweger won the 2020 best actress Golden Globe for Judy.
Zellweger, after being nominated for Oscars three times and winning once (Best Supporting Actress in Cold Mountain), had stepped away from films for six years to get her life in order and to size up the future. With Judy, a film version of Judy Garland’s last months before her death at 47, she is back with a vengeance.
The film was adapted from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow, which ran on Broadway in 2012 to generally good reviews. The movie, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, downplays some of Judy’s more extravagent gestures and emphasizes her desire to be a good mother, which she states explicitely several times.
When the film opens, she has no money and is being kicked out of the hotel where she has been staying because she has run up a huge bill (practical concerns were never her strong point). In fact, it is her need for money to provide a home for her two youngest children (Lorna, played by Bella Ramsey, and Joey, played by Lewin Lloyd), that convinces her to take the extended engagement at the “Talk of the Town” nightclub in London. Leaving the children with her ex-huband, Sid Luft, she flies to England.
At the nightclub, owned by Bernard Delfont (the great Michael Gambon, essentially wasted in a bit part), she sings, collapses, sings some more, collapses again, and wonders how much longer she can continue. To pad out these stretches, the film details the problems she presents to Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), the woman charged with keeping her sober and functional. It also shows her encounter with a gay couple who are long-time fans, thus emphasizing the gay community’s fascination with Judy and setting up the ending audience-participation version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The most important additions are the flashbacks to her teenage years when The Wizard of Oz was filmed, for they reveal how Louis B. Mayer dominated her life and started her on the pattern of pills, both uppers and downers, that continued for the rest of her life and likely led to her death from an overdose.
Mayer clearly anticipated the predatory quality of later movie moguls as he calls her his little “hunchback” and undermines her confidence. How much Mayer’s actions contributed to Garland’s lack of confidence in herself is problematic—she stated that he treated her badly but she later was friends with him.
The film also shows her wedding to her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Completely missing from the story is Garland’s notorious mother, Ethel Gumm, whom she called the original “Wicked Witch of the West.” One wonders how much of what was blamed on Mayer may have actually started with her mother.
Whatever is added or subtracted from Garland’s life story, the film is Zellweger’s to make or break, and she succeeds amazingly well. Only slightly older than Garland was when she died at 47, Zellweger has shaped her physical appearance, studied films and concert footage of Garland to impersonate her body language, and worked with a voice coach to better capture Garland’s vocals.
Zellweger does her own singing (despite the comment about bad lip-sync from one reviewer who obviously hadn’t seen the film), and while she doesn’t completely disappear into Garland, she’s impressive enough to virtually guarantee an Oscar nomination.
Garland would die six months after the events of the film, found by her fifth husband in their London apartment, but as Judy reminds us, despite her teenage trauma, she was a fighter until the end.

(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org)

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