What to Watch (and Not) on Streaming and in Theaters This Weekend, From ‘Ad Astra’ to ‘The I-Land’

September 20, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Ad Astra-Tigers Are Not Afraid-The I Land-weekly review roundups
Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection; Michelle Faye Fraser/Netflix; Twentieth Century Fox
Shudder/Courtesy Everett Collection; Michelle Faye Fraser/Netflix; Twentieth Century Fox

Whether you’re standing in the theater lobby or curled up in bed, deciding what to watch next is often the most difficult part of any pop-culture junkie’s day. And with dozens of films in theaters on any given weekend, plus virtually endless layers of streaming purgatory to sort through in search of your next binge-watch, there’s more out there—and tougher decisions to make—than ever.

Fortune‘s here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling all the entertainment out there down into three distinct recommendations: should you see it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.

SEE IT: ‘Ad Astra’ (now in theaters)

It’s indicative of how we as a species often fail to truly grasp emptiness—and refuse to get comfortable with it—that deep space, in all its vast expanse, has become one of Hollywood’s go-to sites for philosophical introspection. Like Solaris, Interstellar, and Gravity before it, James Gray’s poetic Ad Astra (whose title, “To the stars” in Latin, should be considered as both exclamation and entreaty) treats the cosmos as a backdrop just barely infinite enough to harbor the answers to humanity’s biggest existential questions.

For astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), lunar missions are just part of the job; he’s unflappable when pitted against the vacuum of space, perhaps partly because he was raised in a society that’s so thoroughly demystified the moon as to open an Applebee’s there. But when mysterious energy surges emanating from near Neptune begin to wreak havoc on Earth, Roy is tasked with pinpointing their source, which could have something to do with a space mission undertaken years prior by his vanished, assumed-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones).

That setup belies Ad Astra‘s focus on love and connection, two very human ideas that would seem incompatible with a space explorer’s twin ethos of independence and isolation. Gray is one of the more interesting directors still working in the epic key of masters like Kubrick, Coppola, and Lean. He’s scaled up with every project; his last, The Lost City of Z, was another near-mythic fable involving fathers and sons, haunted by vestiges of patriarchal expectation, attuned to the innate egotism of exploration.

Ad Astra gets much too literal in furthering these same ideas, and it falls flat when attempting to actually answer the questions of purpose and utility that its space-odyssey story (repeatedly) raises. Often, it goes so far as to confuse articulating one’s problems with working through them, as if a broken arm can be set with words alone. That a two-and-a-half-hour film ends up simplifying its biggest concepts gives you the sense Gray’s ambitions have never been greater, or more on the verge of escaping his reach. And yet, the film’s stubborn interiority, its sense of a soul, is mesmerizing, and Pitt is tremendously moving while giving one of the best performances of his career. It’s his movie-star gravity that keeps Gray’s gorgeous abstractions from drifting away, unmoored, into the void.

STREAM IT: ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (Shudder)

Writer-director Issa López’s dark fairy tale (now streaming on Shudder) has earned the endorsement of one Guillermo del Toro, the cinema’s greatest living practitioner of magical realism. And in watching her endlessly haunting film, which rivals his Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone in terms of vision (if not budget or visual mastery), it’s easy to see why.

Set against the bloodsoaked tableau of Mexico’s interminably brutal drug wars, Tigers Are Not Afraid presents its young hero, orphaned Estrella (Paolo Lara), with three pieces of chalk signifying three wishes she can make. Armed with the innocent hope of all children, native even to those living in times of deep suffering, she wishes for her vanished mother to return to her. And she does, but as a gasping wraith so terrifying Estrella flees, seeking refuge with a gang of street children on the run from gangsters.

You see, the fantastic offers little escape from the real in López’s story, which never softens the brutality and constant heartbreak of life for children born into a cycle of great and terrible violence. Estrella’s wishes never come true in the form one might expect, and whether they’re real or simply the product of a young girl’s fertile imagination is of little concern to kids looking desperately for something, anything, on which to hang their hopes for a better future. In their hope is contained the entire movie, burning bright against a night eternal. The stories they tell are necessary shielding, songs of survival: needed to reckon with tragic pasts, to resist the hopelessness of a broken present, to remain for futures that promise them nothing. This is a very timely film, and a wise one.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is also haunting in the extreme, and its best images—of street graffiti coming alive on the wall, an all-important passing of the torch (a lighter, actually), children in cages and an actual tiger freed from theirs—get in your bones, deep down to the marrow. López, with an unknown cast and razor-thin budget, makes every shot count; her passion and hunger as a storyteller just getting started is as unmistakable as it is thrilling.

SKIP IT: The I-Land (Netflix)

“It’s a whole survival of the fittest kind of thing, huh?” Says one castaway to the other. “Well, I mean, you are pretty fit,” comes their salacious reply, before the two lock lips.

Is The I-Land Netflix’s worst original series to date? In the streamer’s quest for global domination, it’s greenlit some atrocious offerings, from truly laughless sitcoms (Fuller House, Real Rob) to major dramatic misfires (Gypsy).

But this reality-TV-meets-B-movie miscalculation is perhaps terrible on a scale greater than any we’ve seen from Netflix. Dramatically, it’s the equivalent of a nuclear power plant in meltdown, spewing radioactive plumes of bad acting and worse dialogue into the atmosphere, forcing a speedy retreat from all but those most hardened of hate-watchers. Its Lost-in-paradise setup—10 beautiful people wake up on an island with their memories wiped—has promise, but it only takes minutes for the series’s head-scratching tonal mixture to reveal itself.

Imagine an adult-film send-up of Lord of the Flies edited to air on MTV, and you’ve come pretty close to envisioning the myriad errors in judgment that went into making this series. If only it had the good sense to know it’s a comedy. Despite the presence of well-known stars like Kate Bosworth, Natalie Martinez, and Alex Pettyfer, all playing island-dwellers with secrets to hide, this is the rare bad show that actively repels viewership. It moves with all the grace of a runaway freight train, crashing through why-is-this-here storylines involving sexual assault, mass shootings, and (most awfully) the criminal justice system as a whole. But perhaps The I-Land‘s most impressive failure is that, despite all the sharks, simulations and soap operatics, it’s so forgettable as to fade in the memory as you watch.

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—Some of this fall’s most buzzed about TV shows will feature familiar faces
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Inside Succession with executive producer Adam McKay and actor Kieran Culkin
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