2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Drama

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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Director/Screenwriter: James Gray

By Roderick Heath

James Gray has failed to wield commercial success equal to his critical standing, which is significant, particularly in Europe, but also tellingly divisive. Perhaps a greater part of the reason for this lies in the key underpinning of his aesthetic, from his steely debut Little Odessa (1994), through his curiously elegiac crime films The Yards (2001) and We Own The Night (2007), and the mature, mutable drama of Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2014), is they resist familiar rules of screen drama in refusing to emphasise urgency or agency for its characters, but instead constantly nudge them along with the ineluctable quality of fate. They are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living. Gray’s oeuvre consists of tales of outcasts and troubled inheritors as much stricken and burdened with their ambitions as compelled by them, shot in sombre, moody, yet inescapably authoritative panoramas. Gray is often described as an old-fashioned talent almost without peer in the contemporary cinema landscape, but the truth is his kind of filmmaker was never particularly common or popular, crafting rigorous, lushly shot but essentially told tales of the emotionally thwarted and the life-beset.
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Gray’s influences seem to include the stately gravitas of Luchino Visconti, the streetwise tragedies of Martin Scorsese, the sombrely artful side of Francis Coppola, the hymns of repression and freedom of David Lean, and the subtler side of John Ford, the one obsessed with social rituals and the problems of maturation. The Lost City of Z, Gray’s latest, is a venture into new territory for the director, as a film recounting the life of a British adventurer in exotic climes, and yet it pushes the ghost story aspect to Gray’s tales to an extreme. Every action of the central characters in The Lost City of Z is tethered to inevitable dates with obsession and doom. The story he takes up here itself immediately evokes such an mood of eerie transience and doomed embarkation, in recounting the life of Percy Fawcett, a controversial and much-mythologised figure who met a mysterious end in his attempts to penetrate the innermost heart of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city he had become convinced once flourished there. Fawcett’s adventures were the stuff beloved of Boy’s Own magazines and early mass media hoopla, as Fawcett’s willingness to feed those beasts with tales of giant spiders and snakes as well as lost civilisations fed the lurid dreams of generations. Recently history has caught up with Fawcett in seeming to vindicate his wildest flights, as the remains of just such a civilisation around where he thought it might be have emerged, discoveries that cast a new light on the theories of a man who had been, at different times, dismissed as a charlatan, a eugenicist, and an Ahab-liked madman who lured his son and others to ignominious death in the jungle.
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Gray presents him rather as a smouldering social rebel, driven along by the disgrace of his father, who, straining against the tight leash of high Imperial Britain’s social prescriptions, finds a way to give them the slip and strive to touch something grand. In this regard, The Lost City of Z takes up the little-considered but powerful spiritual side of Lean’s later epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and strips away the more sensational elements to makes this pining desire for a transcendence tinged with pantheistic sublimation the focus of the journey. Fawcett, when first introduced, is seen gaining victory in a deer hunt held by British officers stationed in rural Ireland. Much as D.H. Lawrence identified Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as the embodiment of the western death-dream, Fawcett has the same gift for the chase and touch with death, but he is doomed to hunt something much more rarefied, nominated by chance and temperament as a knight embarking on a grail quest. His swashbuckling prowess is in the meantime undoubted, but he’s still held at arm’s length by superiors who disdain meeting with him at the soiree following the hunt. Fawcett’s attempts to be a model soldier and citizen are contradicted by his broader mind and deeper emotional reflexes than most of the people around him. He’s married to Nina (Sienna Miller), a Victorian New Woman and free-thinker. Fawcett, pushing into his mid-thirties without any significant distinction to his name, finally gains a chance for advancement when his map-making skills, honed in doing surveying work for the army, are requested for use by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), chieftains of the Royal Geographical Society.
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Goldie selects Fawcett to head to South America and plot the precise parameters of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, to head off a brewing war between the two nations in the hunger for the riches produced by rubber. On his passage there, Fawcett meets the man who has volunteered to join his mission, the hirsute Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who’s joining him purely for adventure, but who soon proves a stalwart out in the wilds. He picks up a third comrade in Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), a ranking British soldier sent to meet him in the jungle rubber planters’ town of Fazenda Jacobina, ruled over as a kingdom by petty potentate Baron De Gondoriz (Franco Nero). The Baron gives Fawcett an enslaved native as a guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who tantalises the Englishman with tales of mysterious people who live in the jungle in their large and sophisticated cities.
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The Lost City of Z represents a sharp digression for Gray in some ways as the first time he’s ever ventured out of New York, let alone a North American setting, and his intricate grasp on the lost souls of the urban landscape, even as it slots into his oeuvre stylistically speaking with ease, and Gray methodically disassembles several of the potential genres the film belongs to. Gray orientates himself in the jungle by referencing a pair of his favourite films, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both tales of self-appointed supermen with egos unchecked in the jungle, as Fawcett and his pick-up expedition venture into the wilderness only to find themselves beset by a nightmarish sensation of being unmoored from all familiar yardsticks of life and society. They become targets for native tribes who pepper their barge with arrows, and beset by maladies, like one that causes a team member to vomit up black blood. The forest proves near-desolate as a source of food, until Fawcett finally manages to shoot a wild pig. A brief attempt at revolt by a subordinate sees Costin shoot the mutineer’s ear off. But Gray also contends with such evocations and similarities and moves quickly past them, particularly as although as obsessive as the antiheroes of those canonical works, Gray’s Fawcett latches on to a dream of the landscape that beckons to the higher part of his mind rather than the black part of the id, and his journey becomes more one of diffusion into the landscape than resistance to it. He makes contact with tribes who have known only the thinnest connections to the outside world but soon learns of their capability in existence and the subtle harmonies of their lifestyles, which range from cannibalising dead tribe members to cultivating food and catching fish with special drugs.
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Fawcett begins to glimpse haunting signs of long-ago habitation in the jungle, remains of pottery and other fragments of civilisation, and faces carved into trees and rocks, gazing out like the spiritual eyes of the land, a lost part of the collective memory, an idea that gives rise to his decision to name the city out in the jungle ‘Z’ as the last piece of the human puzzle. Fawcett’s return to civilisation sees him mocked at a Royal Geographical Society meeting when he presents his findings and he angrily defends his theories against a reaction he interprets as contempt for the Amazonian peoples. One of the Society’s senior figures, Sir James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), proposes they venture back into the Amazon together to look deeper, and Fawcett eagerly agrees. But Fawcett soon finds he’s made a poor bargain, as Murray proves not only too old and unfit for the arduous exploration, but bilious and recalcitrant too, proving a terrible drag on the expedition. Murray presents a different order of nuisance to the men from Fawcett’s previous expedition, so rather than continue to suffer his insolence and unable to blow a hole in his ear in deference to his standing, Fawcett gives him their only horse and some provisions to head back to the nearest outpost.
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Shortly after, Fawcett catches glimpse of another carved face in the rock, and realises he’s finally made his way back to the realm of Z. But a flash flood nearly kills him, and then he’s called back to Costin to camp, and the sickening discovery that Murray sabotaged their supplies before leaving, a petty revenge that might also be intended to forestall any achievement of glory that sidelines him. The bedraggled party make their way back to civilisation and then to Britain, only to find Murray has beaten them there. After mutual recriminations and accusations between the two men, a charged meeting of the RGS sees Goldie and the other society bigwigs pressuring Fawcett to paper over the cracks in their unity and apologise to Murray, but Fawcett refuses and quits the society. Fawcett seems to have crashed headlong into a barrier of class and credibility even on the path of his elevated mission. The outbreak of World War One soon erases all other concerns. In the trenches Fawcett, Costin, and Manley, who fight together, soon learn that Murray has pulled the same tricks on another expedition, leaving no debate as to his treachery.
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Fawcett’s tale of real-life daring and fixation has all the hallmarks of a type of adventure tale that feels all but by-gone, but Gray’s approach pointedly disassembles the Boy’s Own side of Fawcett’s ventures, bending them to his own purpose and placing emphasis not on derring-do so much as on personal states of seeing and understanding. The Lost City of Z finishes up as much a portrait of a time and place as of Fawcett himself, an old world teetering on the edge of collapse, with Fawcett far out in front of its spiritual plane, hunting for signs in the wastes that once there were not just dragons here. Although an intrepid soul who seems far removed from the drab victims of life in Gray’s earlier films, Gray nonetheless sees shared traits with them, including We Own The Night’s Bobby Green, Two Lovers’ Leonard Kraditor and The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski, because like them he is both well aware of how much his place in society and his identity, imbued by genetics, reputation, nationality, and all the rest of it, define him, and drive his simultaneous need to find a place in the world and desire to escape it altogether. Upon return from his second expedition Fawcett finds his son Jack (Tom Holland), born when he was away on his first expedition, has grown into adolescence with a smouldering resentment for him by the time he comes back from the second. But that resentment soon enough evolves into eager desire to join in his adventures, whilst Percy himself obeys the urge to pursue a habit, one that imbues a feverish high whilst risking extermination all too similar to the one his gambling addict father chased by other means. Both men feel an urge towards honouring identity that nonetheless will destroy them, recalling the brothers in Little Odessa and We Own The Night who similarly find bonds of love and emulation become crushing chains.
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What Gray signals is important about people like Fawcett is less the specifics of their own manias but the way they inhabit the shape of our dreams at large, as Percy becomes a popular hero and celebrity for much the same reasons the establishment figures are obliged to constantly close ranks against him, for letting his imagination get away from him, and encouraging others to do the same. The limitations of will against identity are also crucially illustrated when Nina, beset by anxiety and resentment at being left at home when her energies and capacities cry out for better use, suggests that she accompany Percy on an expedition. But the idea horrifies her husband and reveals the limitations of his radical principles, as he declares allegiance to the idea of gender equality of mind but not body, particularly not hers in the gruelling reaches of the jungle, a place where, in fairness to him, he’s seen hardened trekkers and warriors crumble. This is a vital scene, not just for Hunnam and Miller’s all too volubly human incarnation of an essential modern problem, but also in offering a scene all too left out of this breed of film, encompassing two entirely understandable but diametrically opposed points of view between people who love each-other whose life circumstances and internal battles keep pulling them in different directions. Each time Percy returns to his wife she’s older and has more children rooting her securely to a world she’s in even more conflict with than he is.
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Percy’s encounters in the jungle with the fringes of his own society and what he finds beyond them come as a series of pierced veils that reveal new truths but also new mysteries and tantalising prospects. The pretences to grafting European culture onto a primal shore first glimpsed when Percy finds opera in the jungle gives way swiftly to the backwoods warlord stances of De Gondoriz and the network of scars on Tadjui’s back, whilst the apparently blank malevolence of the tribes who try to wipe out the intruders soon reveal faces and rich gifts for cultivation and nuances of lifestyle. They yield to Percy’s determination to communicate: at one point he gets his men to sing “Soldiers of the King” and waves a Bible and handkerchief before him as signs of his friendliness, signs and song the keys to human interaction, and doesn’t let an arrow that pierces part-way through the Bible break his gesture, even as the sickening proximity of death sends his mind scurrying back through memories of baptising his son. The act of unveiling and discovery gains a new context when Percy is left temporarily blinded by poison gas and rediscovers his family whilst lying bandaged and sightless in a hospital bed, prompting reconciliation between father and son. Survival and reconciliation are themselves a false ending before the quest calls again, and when news comes to Percy a new expedition might be chasing Z, this time Jack convinces his father to let him come with him to the Amazon, and a reluctant Nina acquiesces, and joins her other two children in farewelling them when they set off, in a sequence of unforced rapture, with daughter Joan (Bethan Coomber) chasing after the van carrying them away.
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Gray’s repute for crafting films with great visual beauty and concision on tight budgets reaches an apogee here, as every frame The Lost City of Z, thanks to Darius Khondji’s photography, comes on a muted yet cumulatively delirious beauty. And yet there’s a fragmentary quality to them as well, like pictures trapped in amber, managing to evoke the sensation Gray constantly reaches for as more remembered than witnessed. The sequence when Fawcett first enters Fazenda Jacobina is staged as a rapturous string of discoveries, as the bush parts to suddenly reveal an opera stage in the wilderness with singers mid-performance, and they tread the streets of the outpost, a warren of flickering firelight, an emanation from the physical and mental outskirts of the human world. This scene is rhymed later on when Fawcett returns to it with Jack only to find the place deserted, the jungle swiftly clenching it and drawing back into its heart. The town has become an instant and frightening example of just how fast nature can erase the imprint of human achievement once it ceases to be cared for, and thus providing in miniature a thesis statement for Fawcett’s concept for Z itself. Gray carefully violates the texture of his steadily paced, classical outlay of images with flashbacks, as when Percy, exposed before the arrows of a potentially hostile tribe, recalls baptising his son with Nina in a country church, a moment more dream-like than anything he finds in the jungle, which seems to be a trap for time but is actually a rigorously straightforward place.
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The cyclical construction and collapse of civilisations is a historical phenomenon Fawcett becomes privy to as he and his mates are shoved into the eye of the Great War’s furore, the battlefield studded with splayed corpses and a lonely statue of Jesus jutting from the wasteland, just as the remnant artworks and wares of Z dot the jungle. Z is Fawcett’s own world, hammered into mud and splinters, whilst he clings on to his Edenic dream, sketched upon a paper scrap he carries with him; Gray locates the science fiction film lurking within the rough-hewn veracity of Fawcett’s adventure, diagnosing Fawcett as a proto-modern with eyes fixed uneasily on a new state of being that is also unknowably ancient, appropriate for an age when history will undergo a violent and wrenching reboot. Fawcett’s command is visited by a fortune teller who grasps the essence of his ambitions and the attractive power of the world he dreams of, “A vast land bejewelled with peoples,” whilst Gray’s pivoting camera matches the stark and filthy mugs of Percy’s battered soldiers with the visages of the Amazonians amidst the primal green. The devolution is completed as Percy leads his men into battle, envisioned in a war scene reminiscent of the one Stanley Kubrick conjured in Paths of Glory (1957) as the Germans become a mere blank force of extermination randomly picking off men around Fawcett. The hawkeyed hunter of the opening deer chase is reduced to ineffectually firing off his pistol at unseen enemies, the cavalier tradition Percy both exemplifies and nettles at finding its ultimate cul-de-sac. Z, a place he senses is real even as it seems to exist beyond any liminal reality, has become not simply a preferable place to be but the only place.
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There’s incidental pleasure to be had in the way Gray utilises and disrupts the movie star wavelength of Hunnam and Pattinson, both of whom had been dismissed as pretty boys in their past roles and whose paths to proving themselves lend subtext to their characters here. This is particularly true of Pattinson with face smothered by great wispy beard, playing the oddball Costin who gains his introduction to Fawcett when the officer assaults him, believing him to be some ruffian dogging his footsteps, only to find he’s a tippling Edwardian bohemian looking for a life less ordinary. Costin eventually finds his own limit for Quixotic adventures after the war, when Fawcett tracks him down to a club where he doesn’t want to abandon his soft leather chair and whiskey. Hunnam’s own quality is one several directors have tried and failed to quite harness – Anthony Minghella came closest casting him as a vicious albino gunfighter in Cold Mountain (2003), an ironically villainous role for an actor sent down from matinee star casting, one that understood the tension between his standard, Nordic good looks and his slightly alien intensity as an actor. But it’s this tension that allows him to inhabit both Fawcett’s ready embodiment of the magazine hero type and the contradictions roiling around under the surface, the suppurating anger and spice of special lunacy that sends him again and again into the valley of death. Indeed, there are witty and intelligent casting choices throughout, particularly as Gray employs the likes of Nero, McDiarmid, and Macfadyen, actors with strong and specific associations in the modern movie canon.
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Murray Melvin, best known as the effete minister and gatekeeper in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), appears briefly in a similar role here as one who warns a grandee that Percy had an unfortunate choice of parentage. And yet the movie fan aspect to incorporating such actors has been carefully smudged into the landscape. Miller’s part critiques the many loyal wife roles Miller has played lately by inflicting that lot on Nina even as she does her best to escape it. Gray’s patience as a filmmaker often pays off in climactic moments that strike hard as they resolve the themes of the films in ways words cannot, like the contact between the brothers in We Own The Night, and the schismatic last image of The Immigrant that sent its protagonists on their differing ways to paradise and purgatory respectively. Here Gray goes himself one better as he tracks Percy and Jack into the bush on their date with destiny, being caught between two warring tribes and being caught by one, who, deciding to help them on the last leg of their quest, feed them what might by medicine or poison, and carry them through a jungle alight with fire, an image hinted throughout the film and now abloom with atavistic glory for a crossing of the river on the way to oblivion.
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Nina keeps a faith at home, handing over a totem – Percy’s compass – as a sign they might still be alive in the jungle, living now with the natives as the ultimate mutineers against civilisation. Gray revises the last shot of The Immigrant here as Nina leaves the Royal Society building, filmed in a mirror, vanishing into crepuscular light through greenhouse fronds as the sounds of Amazonia arise on the soundtrack. Gray here signals Nina’s fate to be held arrested by the mystery of her husband and son’s fates, subject to the same vexation in being spiritually if not physically reclaimed by the same cruel and beckoning promise of subsistence within the wilderness, Pandora left nursing hope as the last and most mocking evil, and as ever the most desperately needed, in the box that is the modern world.

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