Ad Astra Movie Review

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action-Drama/ Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, John Finn, Kimberly Elise, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Ortiz/ Runtime: 124 minutes

I feel it is safe to say that while there have been a significant number of sci-fi films about people who have to go to the outer limits of space to find truths within themselves, none are quite like James Gray’s “Ad Astra.” Indeed, if you seek an action-oriented thrill a minute kind-of ride, “Ad Astra” will not work for you. However if you are seeking a film where its ultimate success is that it manages to serve as an examination of conceptions of masculinity, a commentary on how sometimes, despite our innermost desires, we still become our parents, and even as a search for a God who’s choosing not to pick up the phone no matter how many times you dial then this is the film for you. Indeed when you get one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances, a game supporting cast, and an absolutely remarkable technical element then what you are left with is a truly distinct film the likes of which I haven’t seen since perhaps Apocalypse Now or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The plot is as follows: In a future where space travel has become more commonplace/commercialized, Roy McBride is the coolest astronaut to rock the spacesuit since perhaps ol’ Neil himself back in 1969. Indeed McBride is noteworthy as someone who has never had his BPM ever come close to increasing above 80…..even when an accident in space causes him to plummet from the tower is working on straight back down to Earth in a free fall that would make Tom Petty proud. Of course for Roy this nightmare is only just beginning as we soon find out with him that the cause for his Assassin’s Creed leap of faith is a mysterious power surge that has the potential to cause catastrophe across the universe. Worse yet, the military personnel in charge of the space exploration division have discovered that the source of the surge goes back to an anti-matter device stationed near Neptune; a locale that just happens to be the last place anyone heard from a famous mission called The Lima Project which was tasked with going to the furthest reach of our solar system and look around at the rest of the universe, trying to find intelligent life. Oh and one more small detail: this project just also happened to be captained by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). Naturally Roy, due to believing his father long-since deceased, is slightly alarmed by this course of events, but soon finds his own personal mettle tested when he is sent to Mars in a bold attempt to try and get him to communicate with his father in the hope that a reply will allow them to pinpoint his interstellar location. Of course as we all know, in space nothing is ever really that simple….

Now as in the director’s last film before this there is an element of this movie which showcases how the acts of journey and exploration can change a man both inside and out. In this film we see this happen as Roy starts to feel his pulse elevate as he leaves the comforts of his routine and his home, but also as the stakes of his adventure rise. Yet Gray incredibly never loses the human intimacy of this story, as he manages to keep us linked to McBride and how he views the world around him, thus we experience only what he does and know only what he does. The result therefore is a film that feels simultaneously massive and deeply personal with the themes it presents and it does so with skill and heart.

Yet I feel it needs to be said, that while this is a deeply philosophical film there are also still real stakes throughout McBride’s journey. Indeed people die, make mistakes, and just play out some of the truly worst of the human emotions in the emotion catalog including selfish, scared, and greedy. Despite that negativity on display though; it does serve a purpose. The said purpose is that these encounters with the other people throughout the course of his journey, including solid work albeit all too-brief roles from both a welcome in anything Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga are meant to illuminate the humanity within Roy to the point that we begin to see this seemingly perfect man who fell to Earth become imperfect as he reaches ever closer to his creator, and in the process finds himself finally being able to see the imperfections of those around him.

Now with all of this in play I do feel that Brad Pitt manages to give one of the most subtle performances of his career. Indeed quite a few directors would have been too enraptured with the grandeur of outer space or the details of the interstellar travel to notice. Yet Gray wisely sees the master artistry at work and thus allows the camera to linger on Pitt’s face in ways no other director really has before, and it leads to what’s arguably Pitt’s most complex performance. This is because while Pitt avoids showy choices at every turn, he also doesn’t err in the other direction and make McBride too stoic thus by the end of the film this is a perfectly calibrated performance. Indeed between his work in this and in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” 2019 is one of if not the best year of Pitt’s career. Indeed his roles in these are both instantly classic, and since they are in such completely different ways, we are left to see a complete picture of just how underrated Pitt’s range as an actor can truly be when given the right material.

Of course, as with all of Gray’s previous films, it should go without saying, but the craftsmanship here is truly top-notch. Indeed from the black-and-white of the moon to the rusty red of the base on Mars this is a film that really contains a truly mesmerizing visual palette. Not only that, but the cinematography is a fantastic echo of the cinematographer’s prior work on “Interstellar”. This is because it does a truly effective job of doing a balance-act of both extreme close-ups of masked space travelers as well as the vastness of space behind them. Finally I found that this film has a truly intriguing and highly successful score since it manages to be both unnaturally intimate, but also majestic simultaneously.

All in all it seems that audiences have found themselves in an era of what are becoming known as “highbrow sci-fi material”. These are films like Matt Damon’s The Martian that are made with a dual objective of not only making high profits, but also to try and reap for their respective studios some serious awards consideration. The weird thing is that neither of those seems particularly likely for “Ad Astra.” Indeed this is a film that is a bit too strange to be a major box office hit while at the same time finds itself being released by a studio that, due to current events, finds itself in flux due to having to make the transition to being yet another property owned by the House of Mouse. Still, I am going to go out on a limb and predict that time will be kind to this film. That is because while this film may take place in the future, the film does have something to say that we can all relate to and always will. That is that we will always find moments where we find ourselves on a quest for meaning in the world, but especially so when sometimes it feels like what we used to believe in and rely on no longer comforts us in the same way. Indeed “Ad Astra” is a deeply moving film with some truly bold ideas as well as a truly great performance by Brad Pitt that most likely will do work on your emotions in ways that you will not be expecting. Trust me when I say that this is one cinematic destination that is worth the journey. Just be patient with it, invest in it, and prepare to be intrigued. On a scale of 1-5 I give Ad Astra a 3.5 out of 5.