Ad Astra (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Ad Astra is cerebral science-fiction, which, on a scale like this, with a huge movie star like Brad Pitt as the lead actor, brings lots of people to the theater with a whole lot of expectations.
Aided by an amazing original score and stunning visual effects, Brad Pitt continues to redefine his acting career with one of the finest performances he has ever given.
Contemplative, patient, and dealing with complex emotional storylines, Ad Astra is going to surprise a lot of people who are expecting this to be a big-budget, Brad Pitt-led action movie.
Contemplative, patient, and dealing with complex emotional storylines, Ad Astra is going to s̶u̶r̶p̶r̶i̶s̶e̶ frustrate a lot of people who are expecting this to be a big-budget, Brad Pitt-led action movie.
When you look at the subplots and supporting storylines, Ad Astra begins to show some notable deficiencies which keep this from becoming an all-time great science-fiction film.
Once you realize what this is angling towards, in terms of redemption for Pitt’s character, you may see this as little more than a by-the-book family drama - just one set millions of light years away.
The renewed obsession with telling interstellar space stories of varying depths and degrees continues with Ad Astra, a contemplative, meditative, somewhat cerebral story of one man’s trip across the universe. That man, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is the son of one of the most decorated astronauts in American history, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). In writer/director James Gray’s newest film, Roy is tasked with investigating whether Clifford is sending some form of communication from the outer reaches of Neptune.
While working on space antennas, which stand outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, a devastating accident occurs affecting Roy and his team. It is believed the accident was triggered by some type of intergalactic power surge and soon, Roy is taking a top secret meeting with government officials who believe the surge may have been identified as coming from as far away as Neptune.
Clifford was the lead astronaut on something known as The Lima Project. Approximately 30 years prior to the events depicted above, The Lima Project was a mission designed to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe, in the hopes of finding signs of intelligent life somewhere. The last known communiqué came nearly three decades prior, and once contacts went dark, the mission was deemed inconclusive. Clifford and his team were identified as casualties.
Back to the film’s setting, which Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross indicate is “in the near future,” the Federal Government has colonized the Moon and set up launch pads and military outposts on Mars. People travel to the moon routinely, departing as one does every time they take off from an airport. You can have Subway on the moon in this dystopian construct, but also need to protect yourself as lawlessness reigns supreme near the moon’s proverbial dark side.
With each interaction, Roy is solemn, a man of (too) few words, but observant of everything around him. He is routinely subjected to psychological examinations, where he shares his thoughts and emotions into a microphone and an omniscient computer decides whether he has passed or not. His resting blood pressure is consistently low. He seems unflappable.
Gray infuses Roy’s story with voiceover, the uttering of internal thoughts that help us better understand the emotions at play. Surrounding those moments of introspection are scenes enhanced by breathtaking visual effects, often pristine, clear, and incredible renderings of backdrops and landscapes which feel tangible and real. Everything feels believable, from the craters on the moon, to the density of the Red Planet, to the astonishing look of Neptune.
Yet, as we work through Ad Astra, one might begin to wonder what journey we are actually on.
In full disclosure, much of this feels pretty grim. Death is seemingly ready to strike at any moment, even when you least anticipate it. On the one hand, death is a major influence on Roy’s thoughts and emotions beyond his father’s absence all of these years. A failed marriage to Eve (Liv Tyler, in little more than a cameo) represents a death. A shocking turn of events later in the film puts death right in front of Roy. And there is something clever and powerful about acknowledging that death is an inescapable reality no matter where you may find yourself within the universe.
The longer Ad Astra goes, frustrations bubble up to the surface. Gray seldom uses specific incidents in his film to inform Roy’s singular way of thinking. With all of the incredible visuals, an exceptional Max Richter original score, and Pitt’s haunted, fragile, elegaic work in the leading role, Ad Astra seems to really be about nothing more than a father and a son. Everything else is essentially window dressing. Stunning, jaw-dropping window dressing, but window dressing all the same.
One would be remiss to not acknowledge that Pitt is arguably the best he’s ever been here. Following his acclaimed work in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the actor will be in many awards season conversations for both of these performances. More than just looking pained and saying very little, Roy wears thirty years of confusion, trauma, a feeling of abandonment, and a chasm of emptiness across every wrinkle and crevice of his face. The actor downshifts into something remarkable and truly carries this film on his broad and ample shoulders.
Sadly, Gray and Gross’ screenplay has very minimal interest in nearly anyone else in the film. Roy has some nice exchanges with his dad’s former colleague (Donald Sutherland), who accompanies him to the moon. But other characters, including a diverse crew of astronauts who ferry Roy to Mars are caricatures at best. A contact Roy meets on Mars, Helen (Ruth Negga), is so poorly underwritten, you wonder why Gray even introduces her as a character in the first place.
There is a lot to be impressed by throughout Ad Astra. There is also quite a bit of fluff that you can pick through pretty easily. While elements of the film make this a journey well worth considering, we may all have a varied enthusiasm when reaching the final destination.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Liv Tyler, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Sean Blakemore.
Director: James Gray
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Release Date: September 20, 2019
20th Century Fox