OnScreen Review: "Ad Astra"

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  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

I’ll admit up front that I am a sucker for outer space movies, especially the sweeping space opera movies. Even flawed but highly ambitious films like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are right in my wheelhouse. There is something about the vastness of space that is tantalizing and yet intimidating that inspires awe and is a great backdrop for telling stories on an epic scale. I particularly love when that vastness is juxtaposed with a personal, intimate story. That’s exactly what we get with Ad Astra, a film about space exploration and a relationship between father and son from director James Gray.

Gray’s last film, The Lost City of Z, told the tale of a British explorer Percy Fawcett’s adventures in the Amazon. Exploration, family, and a central character with a complex interior life are a big part of The Lost City of Z, and Ad Astra shares similar themes, which would make them an interesting double feature. Percy’s father disgraced his family’s name, so in many ways, he is driven to restore the family name. For Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, he is driven to live up to the legacy of his father. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), led a deep space mission to Neptune known as the Lima Project, which lost contact with Space Command sixteen years ago. The Lima Project was sent out to deep space to search for intelligent life beyond Earth, which Roy’s father was convinced had to be out there somewhere. A series of power surges that threaten human life on Earth are traced to Neptune and the Lima Project. Faced with the possibility that his father is still alive, Roy undertakes the secret mission of SpaceCom to try and establish contact with his father, having to travel covertly to the moon and then to Mars, and possibly even to Neptune to do so.

Roy undertakes a journey that is more than just the billions of miles he traverses through space; it’s also a personal and emotional one. Roy is incredibly self-disciplined and calm under fire. He prides himself in having a reputation that even in one of the most extreme situations his heart rate never got above 80. His ability to keep his head when others would panic and lose their cool is his greatest asset in his job, but it also makes him emotionally distant and closed off to others, including his estranged wife, Eve (Liv Tyler).

The revelation that his father may be alive and possibly causing these dangerous power surges is a jolt to Roy’s system and as his journey brings him closer to his father, he becomes more emotionally unbalanced. There are four or five psych evaluations or status updates that Roy is shown doing, essentially to prove that he is still stable enough to carry out his mission. There are slight changes, almost imperceptible at first, in his demeanor during these evaluations, like the baseline tests from Blade Runner 2049. It’s a lot for Roy to process and he’s not handling it well, despite his best efforts. The loneliness of a long space journey proves to be difficult for a lonely, isolated individual like Roy.

In many ways, Gray is the perfect director for this material as many of his films feature main characters with internal struggles, so his capabilities with the narrative of the story and that the balance of the personal and the epic is so deftly handled is no surprise. What is something of a surprise, though, is that Pitt is so perfect for the role. For all his celebrity and movie star appeal, Pitt has never really been considered one of the great actors of his generation. In fact, plenty of people have openly derided his acting ability; personally, I’ve always been a fan. Whatever his detractions may have been 20 years ago, it’s impossible to look at Pitt’s body of work in the last decade or so and not notice a completely different actor than the one that made a name for himself in the 90s in films like Se7en, 12 Monkeys, and Fight Club. Pitt is a movie star, but this is an unadorned, understated, and subtle performance. Between this film and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt is having a very good year and audiences are getting some of his best work ever.

As far as visual spectacle goes, Ad Astra immediately takes its place alongside the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian, and other space operas. There are gorgeous visual renderings of Neptune and Jupiter. A sequence that takes place on the moon involving, essentially, space pirates attempting to commandeer their rovers while traveling on the surface of the moon looks incredible and the physics of it actually feel different because of the difference in gravity on the moon, along with the absence of noise until they are set upon by the pirates. Even the opening of the film which takes place on an international space antenna conveys the kind of scale and scope that you hope for in these kinds of films.

The ending the film is a pleasant surprise, turning out to be not at all what is hinted at or suggested in the lead up to it. It is emotionally resonant though, giving a tender grace note and a paradigm shift in terms of turning one character’s despair and apparent failure into something surprisingly uplifting instead of failure.

Some people may be quick to summarize Ad Astra as daddy issues in space, but the heart of the film is actually the internal journey that Roy undertakes through the isolation of space and through his journey to confront his father. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career in this film that may finally start to make director James Gray more of a name that audiences are familiar with.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars