“Ad Astra” Movie Review

lead 720 405

     In the opening moments of director James Gray’s “Ad Astra”, a title card indicates what we are about to see takes place in the “Near Future”.  Not long after, there are obvious indications that space travel and exploration are now a normal part of life, which tells us the story about to unfold is at least one hundred years from now, maybe more.  Soon after, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is seen performing maintenance work outside of what appears to be a space station orbiting the Earth.  Suddenly, there are explosions within the structure of the station above him that appear to be closing in on his immediate location.  With no other choice, he jumps, free falling towards the Earth when we discover visually that the station was actually a ground based antenna that rises into space.  The protocols in play have astronauts who operate within the space portions of the antenna wear parachutes, allowing Roy the opportunity to survive.

     And after recovering from the episode, he is ushered into a classified meeting where he finds out there were mysterious power surges throughout the world which took the lives of thousands of people when they caused a series of catastrophic incidents.  But the news these higher ups of what is now dubbed Space Command are prepared to pass on to Roy is considerably more grim than initially thought.  The source of the surge is said to have been traced to Neptune, which is the last known location of a space mission called The Lima Project.  And the leader of the project?  Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long presumed dead after having lost contact some thirty years before.  News that is met with obvious interest by Roy who endured his father walking out on him and his mother in order to pursue his ambitions.

     The Lima Project was sent to the far reaches of the solar system for the purpose of finding intelligent life outside of our galaxy.  The events within “Ad Astra” take place within a world where commercial travel to the moon takes guests to an already well established colony complete with a food court, shopping, and what appears to be a political tug of war between Earth’s countries as the moon is said to be borderless and in some places, lawless.  In much the same way a strange energy source wreaked havoc on Earth in 1986’s “Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home”, our planet is in immediate danger and something must be done in order to stop the pending threat.  It is believed, Roy’s father is still alive and may be responsible for the deadly electrical surges originating from the last known location of his space craft.

     The plan is simple, though you have to wonder if there is really any other legitimate option.  Roy is sent to the moon where he will meet up with a secret space craft and crew that will take him to Mars.  There, at an also well established colony, he will send a radio message to his father in the hope he will respond to his son and potentially end the threat facing Earth.  One would have to believe the elder McBride would be pleased to find out his son has followed in his footsteps, though the side effect of his career path has led to many of the same marital issues and left Roy with a life of loneliness and solitude.

     “Ad Astra” plays with a pace akin to a slow burn with a tone similar to both 1982’s “Blade Runner” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”.  Gray, working from a script co-written with Ethan Gross, chooses to focus on his characters, exploring their thoughts and impulses as they move through a series of jolting set pieces designed to bring forth a high level of tension without necessarily coming to any kind of obvious conclusion.  It is, after all a long way from the moon to Neptune, though the time frame cited for the trip to Mars is quoted as an easily doable nineteen days.  But this isn’t the typical mainstream space set action / adventure film.  Often times, we are left with a brooding Roy pushing himself through a series of mental self examinations where he evaluates himself for mission readiness, knowing one mistake could mean the end his life and potentially serious consequences for those on Earth.  For once, it is the story and the people who populate the narrative that take center stage, not the visual effects and computer generated settings.

     But those settings are without question integral to the way the story is told.  Much of the design, from the space craft to the structures and vehicles on both the moon and Mars, has a very used and lived in look that indicates we have now been exploring space for at least a century.  Everything is functional, rather than over the top, where you could see the characters in this film and those in 1979’s “Alien” being a part of the very same company.  Those characters wore jumps suits while working within their ship, while the characters here get around in battle dress uniforms that feature moon and Mars camouflage patterns which was a neat touch in the film’s costume design.  

     The space suits and the technology in play don’t look any more advanced than what we have today, yet, as was pointed out to me after, there are obvious advances in the propulsion of these ships given the short time frames between planets that are in fact a couple billion miles apart.  And yet the film remains grounded in some sort of reality that fools the audience into comparing what they are seeing on screen to the present, when we are clearly a long way from accomplishing anything portrayed as normal in this film.  Perhaps the result of science fiction films rarely utilizing the planets within our solar system as the setting for a story, instead choosing to create fictional planets such as Hoth or Tatooine from the “Star Wars” films.

     After an outstanding supporting turn in this past July’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”,  Brad Pitt has delivered yet another awards caliber performance where the effectiveness of both the character and the film itself lie directly on his shoulders.  If for a second we don’t buy the emotion and pain he is experiencing given all that is on the line, the film would immediately fail.  Though there is plenty that is visually stunning, “Ad Astra” would not succeed the way it does on its space setting alone, and Pitt capably handles the immense expectation of performing a complex and satisfying character in a way you would expect from such an accomplished movie star.  Supporting performances by Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones are also notable.

     The film won’t be applauded by everyone, particularly those who are expecting a crowd pleaser, but for filmgoers wish for more of the character driven dramas of yesteryear, the story offers a fascinating  journey well worth the price of admission.  Whether or not “Ad Astra” will endure as a science fiction classic will have to be determined years from now, but there is no question the exceptional craftsmanship exhibited by Gray and his collaborators has brought forth a film that deserves to mentioned among the best of the year.  GRADE: A