‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience
The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.
Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).
Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.
“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.
Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.
Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.
Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.
But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.
Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.
I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.
As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”
“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”
I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.
Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.
It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.
* * * ½ out of * * * *