Ad Astra vs. Heart of Darkness – Movie review (spoiler free!)

On Saturday, my brother and I went to see Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt.  This is a film that’s been compared – by its director James Gray, no less – to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (one of my axes).  Being in the middle of a Conrad “renaissance” if you will, I felt it was perfect timing.  A couple of my coworkers had seen it already and liked it, so that was another reason I was interested in watching it.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, a young astronaut whose impeccable career is overshadowed by memories of his absent father Clifford and the much-nearer loss of Eve, the devoted wife he sidelined for his career and who’s recently left him.  After a series of devastating electrical surges sweep across the solar system, Roy is tasked by U.S. Space Command to investigate the situation, which they believe could be linked to his dad’s scientific research on Neptune.  Roy sets out to confront Clifford, embarking on a journey through space that is every bit as perilous as his final destination.

While I would not call this a retelling of Heart of Darkness, there are indeed several similarities between this film and that novella.  Roy’s story takes him further and further into isolation, both geographically and psychologically.  Like Conrad’s narrator Marlowe, Roy has an immense amount of time before he meets Clifford, and this waiting fills his mind with doubts, fears, and an overwhelming curiosity.  The hand of empire is as present here as in Conrad’s book – Roy remarks cynically on the presence of governments and corporations on the Moon as he passes through it on his way to Mars.  Throughout the film, Pitt voices Roy’s dark and lonely monologue, which is dissimilar from Marlowe’s in that Roy’s depression has elbowed out any sense of humor he once had.

The most fascinating – and perhaps the most Conradian – element of the film was its dystopian portrayal of space exploration.  This came to me as a complete surprise, since I am used to it being portrayed in Western media as noble and heroic.  The film makes significant references to imperialism and even a passing reference to Manifest Destiny as it describes the exploits of the human race in space.  It doesn’t outright dismiss it, but there are very few positives mentioned or portrayed.  It can be debated whether this is just Roy’s bleak outlook or also the filmmakers’.

I do have to mention a couple of weak points in the plot.  There is one scene where the character makes a stupid decision which doesn’t seem to fit his otherwise cerebral persona.  Another scene involving monkeys seemed extremely random, though effective as commentary on humans’ behavior.  Thirdly, the ending was not at all what I expected – not in a bad way, just unexpected.

Comparisons aside, Ad Astra is a compelling standalone film with plenty of questions and commentary.  It focuses heavily on psychological suspense, and I think even those who aren’t sci-fi fans can appreciate the realism and near-futuristic setting.  There are some gruesome scenes and brief bad language, so it’s not a movie for young kids.  As a squeamish person, I thought it stayed within PG-13, though, and was mostly non-gratuitous.

Nostromo: The Lighthouse – And Final Thoughts

Cape Romain 1827 Lighthouse


The situation has reached a boiling point: General Montero’s rebel forces have dismantled the government and are sweeping over Costaguana, while the traitor Sotillo, invading Sulaco by steamship, comes to establish a reign of terror.  The citizens flee to the countryside, seeking protection by the once-feared bandit Hernandez.  Everyone believes Nostromo and Martin to be dead, and Dr Monygham fears for the safety of Emilia Gould, who, half-abandoned by her workaholic husband, still remains in the town.  He realizes he must take action to save her, while the rebels and the elusive silver begin to take a corrupting hold over everybody else.

There is much, much more that happens in this third part, but I can’t give it away.  It’s as well Part III takes up nearly half of the book, because the initially slow plot here picks up with gusto, taking all the world-building from the first two parts and launching an all-out political/Western drama on a grand scale.  I was so invested in the story, it gave me an awful nightmare (yes, it was the torture scene), which I don’t think has ever happened to me before.  It’s moving, haunting, depressing, and, above all, thought provoking.

Conrad has a great deal to say about imperialism and the double-edged sword that was the British-American investment in South America.  We see Charles Gould as a Gaskellian John Thornton, bringing stable jobs and industrialism to an unstable region, but we also see him as a conqueror and self-centered tycoon, sacrificing his own wife’s happiness for his ambitions.  Conrad’s dual perspective is also directed to President Ribiera and General Montero, neither side effective in governing the country and both entities too strongly influenced by foreign powers, in spite of the ideals of the one and the brute force of the other.  Nostromo, as human as any of them, represents the common man, only one who is half-heartedly a key player in major historical events.  He has his own vices and virtues which are not immune to the proximity of immense fortune.  Conrad leaves no one without a weakness, whether they are white or Latino, rich or poor.

The female characters are well portrayed and surprisingly modern in some ways.  Emilia Gould, though a devoted wife, is well aware of her husband’s flaws and exerts her own charisma and character to help others.  Antonia, the liberated belle of Sulaco, takes after her father Don Jose in her desire to see a better government for the nation.  Linda starts out the daughter of an innkeeper and ends up running the lighthouse on her own.  There are others, and they all stand on their own feet (except perhaps the tragic Giselle, who, in spite of her shallowness, still got my sympathy).

For a more detailed character analysis, definitely check out Brian’s review on Babbling Books.  He describes the core personalities and tensions really well.

I also want to mention two literary devices Conrad uses.  One is a long letter written by Martin to his sister, which goes over some of the main events of the conflict.  The second is a flashback told in the form of a guided tour by Captain Mitchell, as he recalls past events to a visitor to Sulaco.  Both of these devices slow the book down, but on the plus side, I thought they were creative.  Again, patience does pay off, just be prepared!

In all, I feel The Lighthouse made up for the tortoise pace of the first two parts, and I give the book an overall 4 stars.  It is not Conrad’s best writing, and I probably would not have ploughed through it if I weren’t a Conrad fan.  On the other hand, I don’t know of any other English language novel of the 19th century that covers this history (albeit in a fictional setting), and the plot and characters are so strong, I am very glad I stuck with it.  It is just like revisiting my Latin American history college course, except in novel form – so many tragic iterations of military coups, bloodshed, uprisings, and misdeeds or abuse by colonial powers.  This book, for the most part, has aged well, because its moral is still relevant, and unfortunately history has repeated itself in other places and with other people to this day.

Nostromo: The Isabels

Iris Diensthuber [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Part II of Nostromo introduces a new set of characters: Antonia, the “liberated” yet refined daughter of the statesman Don Jose; Martin Decoud, a young journalist head-over-heels in love with Antonia; Hirsch the German trader; and even the title character himself, so notably absent from Part I, plays a major role in The Isabels.

Things have been heating up politically in Costaguana.  The frail presidency of Ribiera, ally of the mine owner Charles Gould, is threatened by the rebel Monterists, who are trying to take over the country and stage a military coup.  Gould can think of only his silver mine and his workers, putting his own and his wife’s safety at risk as he prepares to defend it.  Decoud, finding Antonia hard to win, decides to take up the political torch dropped by her aging father. Decoud’s determination, however, is to make their province independent, rather than trying to restore the entirety of the country – he trusts the power of the mine to preserve their economic autonomy.  As for Nostromo, he finds himself in a dangerous position when he is tasked with the mission of transporting the mined silver to a hiding spot in the Isabel islands.

Even though the plot picked up a bit, I found Part II continually difficult to follow and stylistically slow.  Conrad strives to set the stage with the romance between Antonia and Martin, but the chemistry just isn’t there, so the young lover’s desperation seems a bit silly rather than inspiring.  Nostromo is given a (rather questionable) backstory, but other than that, he’s a somewhat one-dimensional anti-hero, with no apparent aims in life than to win glory and stay out of debt.  Gould remains the most interesting character and the driver behind the plot, so it was a bit disappointing he barely made an appearance.

I still think the concept of the novel is excellent; the execution is just a bit weak at this point. I am hoping my patience will pay off in Part III!

Nostromo: The Silver of the Mine

As with Lord Jim, I feel compelled to write something about Nostromo at about the 1/3 mark.  Conrad very handily divided the novel into three sections: The Silver of the Mine, The Isabels, and The Lighthouse.  I must get my (spoiler-free) thoughts down on the first part before continuing, otherwise I’m bound to forget them.

This “must” is, in part, due to the rambling style of the book.  I can’t remember the last time I read a narrative that was so clear in its purpose yet so murky in its direction.  This first part is all about world-building and character painting, but Conrad doesn’t go about it in a conventional, orderly fashion.  In one moment you are in the past, in another you’re in the present – in one paragraph, you’re standing next to one character, then in the next, you’re following another.  Back and forth, all over the place!  I had to check where I was a few times.

It’s jumbled, but truly immersive.  I feel I have a deep understanding of the people as well the place and time: the fictional nation of Costaguana, in 19th-century South America.  That Latin American history course I took in college is coming alive in the story, places, and scenery.  It’s as if Conrad wants to show me everything all at once, to give me the most complete picture under 200 pages.  It’s overwhelming and strangely powerful.

Nostromo would benefit greatly from a character list such as you’ll find in The Brothers Karamazov.  There’s several major characters and quite a few minor ones, and since the narrative is fluid, constantly shifting focus, it is hard to keep track of them all.

Our main character thus far is Charles Gould, aka Don Carlos, an Englishman and native to Costaguana.  His father was cursed with an old, rundown silver mine – that is, coerced into buying it by shady government officials during a time of revolution. Charles, who is on good terms with the current dictator, decides to take advantage of the favorable political atmosphere and renovate his family’s burden into a profitable scheme, providing jobs and stability to the region.  His devoted wife Emilia supports him in this, as does his neighbor Avellanos and the retired-general-turned-manager Don Pepe.  Some trouble is foreshadowed by the coming of the railway, not to mention the dubious leadership and the haunting legacy of Charles’s father.

Nostromo is just a minor character so far.  A commanding figure, he used to be a sailor, and now he works ashore, at times going the extra mile to keep the peace in the coastal town.  It’s not clear what role he is going to play in the future, but he strikes me as having the potential of Sydney Carton, being in the right place at the right time (or is it the wrong place at the wrong time?).

It took me forever to get into this book, but now that I am, I can say I am really enjoying it.  Conrad excels at generating intrigue and making you curious about the fate of his characters, even if you’re not totally sympathetic with them.  I don’t feel I have a solid grasp on the story, but I do understand the setting and characters, which is part of the appeal.  Hopefully some of the mystery will be made clearer in part 2.