AD ASTRA (2019)

(VOD) AD ASTRA is another dude with daddy issues film from James Gray (LOST CITY OF Z) that tries to be a lot of things: action-packed space-faring spectacle, colonialism, existential horror, and a meditation on journeymen, to name a few, and while it doesn’t quite succeed at any of them, it’s certainly the sort of big swing I appreciate.

However, I’m mentioning AD ASTRA to reflect on my initial viewing experience. You may have heard that all Pacific and ArcLight theaters are going to be shuttered permanently, including the previously mentioned Cinerama Dome in L.A. as well as the Chicago ArcLight location.

If a film wasn’t playing at one of the indie theaters in Chicago — such as the Davis Theater, The New 400, The Music Box, or the Siskel Film Center — I’d normally head north to Evanston’s Century 12 (which has also permanently closed, but will almost certainly re-open as a new theater) or head south to the ArcLight. In the case of AD ASTRA, I ventured to the ArcLight for a weekday double-feature of Sad Son in Space and the Chicago premiere of PARASITE.

When I walked into the ArcLight that afternoon, there wasn’t a single employee in sight. No one helming the bar, no one doling out popcorn, no one taking tickets. It was eerily silent, especially as I meandered down the halls to locate the screen, which felt like a perfect prelude to a film in which Brad Pitt spends a fair amount of time alone.

It’s worth noting that the evening screening of PARASITE was a sold-out delight. Seeing that film for the first time with an energetic crowd prone to gasping and belly-laughing was incredible. We figured we were in for something special, but we were not fully prepared for it.

There’s one more screening I’d like to mention, which could have happened in any other theater, but happened to occur at the ArcLight: I was attending a late-night screening of BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019), populated by a handful of bored teens and two older goths. I kept hearing a chain rattling, and I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was a diegetic sound or what, but it kept occurring throughout the film. Turns out, it was the leash and collar of a very large, very well-behaved dog keeping the goths company. Simply put, that’s not a sound you expect to hear in a theater!

I don’t want to oversell the Chicago ArcLight. It’s hardly the Austin Alamo Drafthouse (RIP, even though the Alamo Drafthouse certainly has issues), but it was a fine theater that was nicely kept, comfortable, and you could grab some above-average food and a local draft beer before your film, and I will miss it.


(Discovery+/fubo/Science Channel)? This will definitely date me, but one of my formative memories is of being dragged out of bed by my father in the middle of the night to see Halley’s Comet. See, I loved reading about space, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. We drove out to the middle of nowhere — easily done when you live in Vermont — but, when he set up my telescope, I refused to look, scared of peering into the unknown. I was too young to have an existential crisis but, upon finally squinting through the telescope’s lens and seeing the burst of light in my telescope, well, it made me feel very small and very alone and very scared, but also in awe of the universe.

Now that I’ve technically grown up, practically every night I reinstill that cosmic feeling by letting this show lull me to sleep.

HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS features an assortment of cosmologists, astrophysicists, theoretical physicists, and other scientists (including Michio Kaku) who discuss the theme of the episode, say, about new discoveries regarding the moons of Saturn, or expound on neutron stars, but more often than not it’s concerned with black holes. While they’re excitedly chatting away about their life’s work, or while Mike Rowe is narrating some connective tissue to help viewers understand the concepts, the show throws a bevy of impressive space CGI at you.

It’s been running for nine seasons now, although a fair amount of the recent seasons consist of three pre-existing hour-long episodes wrapped into one, which makes it perfect for half-awake background viewing.

It’s worth nothing that there are a ton of smaller clips from the show available via YouTube. Science Channel has even conveniently assembled an entire playlist of them, which should make for quality background viewing for you, too.


(Hulu/kanopy/VOD) Released in May 2020, this doc focused on the first real attempt to create a self-sustaining, human-made biosphere, was perfect pandemic fodder, and remains that way. It’d be enough to just hear the tale of those who lived through two years of isolation, but the doc’s juiced by the corporate intrigue and mismanagement that occurred. A fascinating, bewildering experiment that calls for a slightly grander film than this, but I’m just happy to be able to experience it.