September 21, 2019
Ad Astra (2019) Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ruth Negga Directed by James Gray
"I do what I do because of my dad. He was my hero. He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge. Because up there is where our story is going to be told" Brad Pitt (Roy McBride)
A roughly 100-million-dollar psychological sci fi drama that focusses on a very personal adult theme and does not focus much on space travel, space action, or even lightsabers is always going to be a gamble. In recent years films like Intersteller and Gravity have fared well at the box office, while maybe missing the mark a bit story wise, while maybe the best we can hope in a space film these days is something like 2015’s The Martian, a moving central theme, some nerdy space stuff, and a good vibe and pace throughout. Ad Astra is at times brilliant, almost always beautiful, has a moving central theme, and yet even with only a 2:02 runtime, you can’t help but look at your watch or phone during the long wide space shots. It is the kind of film I want more of, but also the kind of film that will surely guarantee films like this are to become a dying breed, studios will roll the dice on them less and less until they are gone.
Talented Writer/Director James Gray (The Yards) attempts to make a space opera that reaches out and tries to touch the depths of the universe and sadly, comes up a little short. Astronaut Roy McBride (in a possible Oscar worthy and wonderfully withdrawn performance by Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission that will potentially reconnect him with his estranged father (played briefly by a tired Tommy Lee Jones) with no less than the fate of the known universe at stake. The backdrop is Roy’s father Cliff McBride’s singular obsession to find intelligent life beyond earth, this obsession comes at the expense of the McBride family of course. Cliff’s mission to the outer edges of the solar system in hopes of making contact don’t go super well, so after a mutiny attempt on Cliff’s ship things go array and power surges start shooting in earth’s general direction, thereby threatening humankind. Roy is sent to make contact with his dad, if alive, and attempt to remedy the situation. It is heavy stuff perhaps more suited for the likes of an Armageddon-like Michael Bay film, but that isn’t what Gray’s film is really about, in fact the film doesn’t spend a ton of time really addressing it. Co-writers Gray and Ethan Gross (who worked on the TV series Fringe) don’t spend too much time on Roy’s current life here on earth either, he has a distant marriage (his wife is again played briefly by Liv Tyler), and his stoic personality does not give you much insight into what kind of husband he is. It feels like a problem (and many viewers will deem it a problem), but Gray I think purposefully doesn’t care about that stuff, he wants to focus only on the father and son and the themes that consume them. What are their ambitions, is the son destined to become the father, what is meaningful to them, can they reconnect if Roy finds Cliff, and finally are we alone in the universe? Gray is really not too concerned with much else other than installing small subplots to move his story along. There is a nice performance tucked into the film by Ruth Negga (Love), but even that plot device seems unnecessary. I was at times taken aback by the brief but strong violence in the film, but not enough to take me out of it. Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”) is an ambitious venture and as a wannabe critic I always give extra points for that, but truthfully it let me down a bit. I wasn’t expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Martian, but I also wasn’t expecting a Terrance Malick film either (perhaps I should’ve expected that). In 2016 I struggled to make it through Gray’s Lost City of Z, another film about someone trying to reach a “mythic” place, as if finding it will somehow make a person whole again. Gray is obviously fascinated by this idea and it is interesting, but I don’t know that it plays well in this setting. Disney was holding onto this film for more than a year after its purchase of 20thCentury Fox, they didn’t know what to do with it, but maybe they were smart to wait until Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came out and provided Pitt with some healthy Oscar buzz. I do think Pitt has had two amazing performances this year in two films that didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations and that’s ok. Ad Astra is a beautifully ambitious film that ends a worthwhile journey answering a question with the saddest answer one could imagine, it is smart, it is well acted, and it is worth seeing. SEE IT!
(The Shawshank Scale 1-10) A stoic but brilliant Brad Pitt who hasn’t been this captivating since Moneyball and James Gray and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s beautifully shot space drama is a solid enough effort to earn a 6.0 on The Shawshank Scale. I just hope it does well enough at the box office to keep Hollywood interested enough to continue making films like this.
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