We watched “Ad Astra” last night.
Like pretty much everyone, we are watching some missed pieces during this pandemic and associated quarantine. We worked through “Tales from the Loop” last week, and while I was perusing the watchlist Friday afternoon I realized there were a few movies on HBO that we had missed at the theatre for various reasons we could take in as well. I sat Saturday and watched “Ford v. Ferrari” and thoroughly enjoyed that, so yesterday I decided to watch “Ad Astra”. I am not always in the mood for the genre it represents, or that I thought it represented, science fiction is often a let down on film, when the studio doesn’t choose a visionary to manage their millions of dollars and instead drops it on someone who’s better off making a football film, but has been reliable for them. There have been thousands of words written and entire Youtube accounts dedicated to folks lamenting the current state of affairs in the film and hi end series business, and it’s pretty unlikely that I have anything particularly unique to add to the dialogue, but these are a few of my personal thoughts. I’ll post my opinions of the actual films on separate pages.
Film and “TV” in general are obviously blurred together these days. Since Netflix became the streaming juggernaut it is, and actual broadcast TV has declined to the point of needing life support, I think I should define the two. I say “TV” in reference to content created with the home viewer as the primary audience, and film as that created for the theatre and big screen experience. You can make a solid argument that they are the same, but even if it isn’t budget and production quality any more there is still usually a palpable difference. In a sense, the big shared universe franchises, and things like 3 “Hobbit” and three “Lord of the Rings” films are not so different from serialized “TV”. The market dictates that even films are made with an eye on the subsequent streaming market from the start. I suppose a more accurate term would be “serialized content” since it doesn’t really matter where we are viewing it anymore.
The whole business seems to be about 50% dedicated to cashing in on nostalgia, and I’m not totally against that. So many really solid stories were let down by abysmal budgets, or in the case of almost all sci fi, the pretty sad visual effects available in the 80s and 90s. They were at best less than stellar, or more likely, never made at all. Some original sci fi has real potential, consider Larry Niven’s “The Smoke Ring” series, which was talked about but never materialized, or, for contrast, the disappointing vision of “Dune” that did come to film. I’m all for some re imagining of a few of the real classics, as long as they respect the source in the process. I don’t need to see a CGI version of “The Last Starfighter”, it wouldn’t improve on the story, and the effects were part of the joy, but I am stoked to see Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune, with a real budget, and (hopefully) less studio interference.
Who didn’t love the new “Battlestar Galactica Series”? The original was a weekly appointment view for me when I was a kid even though it was the campiest thing ever made after the Gil Gerrard “Buck Rogers”. The reboot came at a time when these things were just getting off the ground, and it was made for a modest budget, making the most of every penny they spent to create a gritty take on the original, without completely disregarding it’s lore and texture. Sci Fi made it as a two hour movie first to test the waters, and found such an enthusiastic audience that it ran for seven seasons. On that note, serializing a few classic movies isn’t the worst idea either. We’re all waiting to see what Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series looks like, and I am really enthused with what I’ve seen of the upcoming “Foundation” series. The story telling options a season of 40 minute serials gives writers opens up whole new depths to character development and deeper plots.
Some recent classics like “Firefly” are probably not firing up anytime soon, but just imagine if that franchise had found the type of rebirth that “The Expanse” did with its switch to Amazon Prime and it’s dramatic budget increase. The world of “Firefly” is rich and well developed, and perfect for a spin off shot.
We’ve generally been let down by serial adaptations of films, but when the writers use a well known and popular universe of an original film or franchise as the starting point rather than the characters and plots themselves, we’ve gotten some really good work. I submit the first season of “The Mandalorian” as the obvious candidate. It’s a familiar universe, the writers don’t have to spend three episodes world building, and we get to scratch the nostalgia itch in the process. A similar series based on material not so well known to the general viewing audience requires a good bit more in the way of exposition dumps to get us involved. Instead, “Mando” hit the ground running.
Original series that don’t dig into a known universe, but rather a general since of nostalgia for a period, like “Stranger Things” are new and popular also for very solid reasons. An engaging cast paired with stellar writing from the Duffer brothers made the most surprising and entertaining non franchise series I’ve seen in twenty years. We completely stumbled onto that gem by sitting around in the house alone the year it was released just surfing the Netflix recommended list. We even started it reluctantly, saying “well, we can always turn it off” and ended up watching all night. Having grown up a child of the 80s, the universe it is set in was instantly familiar to me, and different enough from our current that it gives the writers some license to not be 100% gritty and realistic. The obvious nods to classic horror and sci fi films just iced that cake.
I think (and I say this all the time) that were in a golden age of serialized content, and even though the film industry is on life support as far as creativity goes, she’s still hanging in there, releasing the occasional gem for us to dig into. I have high hopes that we’ll get some greatness in between the industry bean counters stepping in and wrecking things. Those giant blockbusters that everyone rushes out and drops 25.00 a ticket on creates profit that pays for riskier but quality work like “Knives Out” and “Ex Machina”. Maybe I’m painting with too optimistic a brush, its a weakness of mine for sure, but things don’t seem to be so bad right now.