Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
Replication plays a major role in Blade Runner 2049, not only in the centrality of its replicant characters—uncanny androids who have developed (or learned how to imitate) the human capacity for rebellion—but also in its status as a sequel to 1982’s influential sci-fi neo-noir. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a near future bathed in neon and obsessed with simulacra, smuggling themes of affect and reality into a pulpy story of a grizzled “blade runner” tasked with eliminating troublesome replicants. Those themes might not be as profound as Blade Runner often makes them out to be—the question of what it means to be human is posed in a broad, cursory manner, more of a plot device than a thematic exploration—but the film is a stylistic masterwork, offering a chaotic, cyber-dystopian world that has become entrenched in our pop-culture consciousness.
If nothing else, Hard to Be a God will almost certainly lay claim to the title of 2015’s most disgusting cinematic experience. The world we see during the film’s three hours is grimy, shitstained, festering and noisome (we can almost smell the screen); the sets are typically smeared with a combination of mud and something less pleasant, and the soundtrack is a near-constant parade of belches, squeals, and tormented yells marked by uneasy silence. The camera inches through claustrophobic spaces, an array of obstructions (various meats, dead animals) hanging from the ceiling. Then, of course, there are the disembowelments and beheadings. This might not be the most alluring sales pitch, but thankfully Hard to Be a God can be regarded as much more than just a vile horror show, a miserable wallow in human awfulness; there is existential mystery and aesthetic wonder beside the repugnance.