Ad Astra Is Not A Space Movie… And That Is Why It Succeeds



The following contains spoilers for Ad Astra:

One of my favorite movies is About Time — a movie about life’s small moments and the people we share them with. It just so happens that it also involves time travel.

I feel the same way about Ad Astra. It is the only space movie I like because it is not a Space Movie. Space Movies like Gravity and The Martian are likable but forgettable. Space Movies like Interstellar are simply awful — yes I’m sure.

Ad Astra was set in space, but it is about something much smaller yet much much bigger than that: human relationships.

It shows us that a father and son’s relationship is more exciting than the marvels of taking commercial flights to the moon or landing on Mars. It doesn’t propose that space is exciting at all. It has normalized it, but the contrast between their casual space travel and our lack of such doesn’t draw attention to itself or feel unnatural.

Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, is struggling with the new knowledge that his father is believed to be still alive. He goes along with the mission he is sent on: to communicate with his father in an effort to stop him from causing further damage to the whole solar system with the project he was sent out there to work on.

McBride tries to be stoic while beginning this mission, though emotion creeps in in small, but visible, doses. A subtle portrait of masculinity, he tries to repress the feelings of love and abandonment he feels for and from his father. Only when he sends out several radio communications to his father does he begin to assess what he is feeling and come crashing down.

These emotional scenes are enhanced because of the juxtaposition with the ordinary feeling of seeing space exploration.

It never makes us feel like we are being pulled out of the film. Rather, we are pulled in to the emotional journey, for which space is simply the backdrop.

The Hunt: A Reflection on Denmark’s History


This essay on Danish film The Hunt was written for World Cinema.

By Kitty Williams

The Hunt is a 2013 Danish film directed by Thomas Vinterberg, one of the fathers of Dogme 95. Dogme 95 was a short-lived film movement characterized by realism in every sense of the word. The film’s theme is also very much a part of Denmark’s reality. The film is a powerful portrayal of the severe damage an accusation of sexual abuse can do to a person. Lucas works at a day care for young children and is falsely accused of sexually abusing a young girl who happens to be the daughter of his best friend. Unfortunately, this is too often a reality in Denmark.

Dogme 95 is a film movement that was created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the director of The Hunt, in 1995. Films considered to be part of the Dogme 95 movement are required to follow a strict set of guidelines. There are ten guidelines, all of which stress the importance of maintaining reality. Though it does not abide by every rule, The Hunt holds onto some of the practices of Dogme 95. There are to be no special effects; a rule adhered to by The Hunt. The film is very visually simple, with shots of the houses, streets, and people of Denmark. The most visually exciting shots are of the colorful forests the hunted animals call home.

Dogme 95 also requires that a film is in color and does not have any non-diegetic music. The Hunt is in color, but it does include music. Music’s presence is so scarce, though, that it is hardly noticeable. Many scenes are plagued by silence, including the scene where Lucas walks around, bleeding from having been hit multiple times. His friends see him but stay away, waiting for him to leave. We see him continue to walk alone, limping, in complete silence. Ironically, another rule of Dogme 95 is that the director goes unlisted in the credits. The director of The Hunt (and the creator of this rule) is listed at the end of the film: Thomas Vintergberg.

The realism of the film extends into the themes that carry throughout. Sexual abuse is a serious topic and is at the center of the film. The main character, Lucas, is falsely accused of sexually abusing one of the children he takes care of at the day care. Unfortunately, Denmark has a history of sexual abuse cases. The number of reported cases was on the rise in 1997. As a result, Denmark began focusing on this issue and was very open with the public about the problem. One famous case, the “Tønder case,” put a spotlight on the issue. This case revealed that a man had been prostituting his daughter to many men. More cases of sexual abuse were found in the following years. Similarly, in the film after all the families with children at the day-care were notified of the accusation, they began looking for the warning signs in their children. Some parents saw symptoms where there weren’t any.

Films are a reflection of the society we live in. The Hunt, on the surface, is about a man who struggles to continue on with his ordinary life after being accused of sexually abusing a young girl from the day care he works at. Taking a deeper look, it is clear that this film is tackling the larger issues of Denmark’s society, still under the influence of the Dogme 95 film movement that was created by the director of the film alongside Lars von Trier.

Phoenix: Speak Low, Stand Tall


This essay about the German film Phoenix was written for World Cinema.

By Kitty Williams

Christian Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix explores the emotional recovery two individuals must endure after World War II. After World War II, many films in Europe were very raw. The war was such a major influence on the world that films began to reflect the changes in a very real way. Nelly, a German Jewish woman is recovering physically and emotionally from her time in the concentration camps and the facial wound she sustained there. In her eyes, recovery means going back to the way things were rather than moving forward. Her husband, Johnny, is focused more on his own recovery financially. He believes her to be dead and his primary goal is to receive her inheritance. He does this by making Nelly over to look like Nelly, not realizing it is in fact her. Though this makeover satisfies both of their agendas in the beginning, it is Nelly who truly recovers, leaving Johnny with the guilt for what he has done to her. Phoenix approaches the raw truths of post-war life in a powerful way, getting at the core of relationships.

After the war, particularly for those who were released from concentration camps, life was very different. Those who were lucky enough to live to see their release from such torture emerged in a changed world. Nelly returns home from the concentration camp and is in the care of her friend Lene. She undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and emerges with a new face despite pleading for her old one. “I want to look exactly like I used to,” she says. This not because she was particularly fond of her appearance before the war, but because she was fond of her life before the war and she believes having that face back will bring a piece of that life back with it. Before the war, people were glamorized in movies with the use of lighting and costuming. After the war, this was not done as often. People were hardened to the realities of life. Similarly, in Phoenix, we hear from Nelly and others how beautiful she was before the war. She is not glamorized on camera but in memory. Now, her face sans makeup (in the beginning of the film) holds the realism of the post-war era. It is only when she feels back to her pre-war self that she begins to wear makeup and brightly colored dresses.

The film also deals with the very real emotional traumas raised by the war. Nelly’s husband believes her to be dead and yet when he sees her he believes her to be a lookalike that he can use to steal her inheritance. Lene tries to convince Nelly that he betrayed her to the Nazis, but she doesn’t listen. She allows him to dress her up to pull off his plan. She clings to the idea of being herself again and living her old life. She does it in an effort to reinsert herself into her old life when in actuality it is making her a spectator of her own life. Their interactions are less about their romantic relationship and more about the need they both have to make things better for themselves. For Johnny, that is money; for Nelly, that is reconnecting with who she was before the betrayal, concentration camp, and facial reconstruction.

War has a deep and lasting affect on everything, including cinema. In turn, it affects Phoenix’s Nelly and Johnny. The pre-war Nelly we hear about is a representation of pre-war cinema. The Nelly we see is in search of who she was, and strives to achieve this by pleading for her old face and going in search of her husband. She doesn’t want her face to look beautiful, or Johnny for romance, but for her old life. Though she fights to be her pre-war self, she has become a recovered version of herself.