A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2019

RANK: #7


2019, PG-13, 124 mins.


Brad Pitt as Roy McBride  /  Tommy Lee Jones as Clifford McBride  /  John Ortiz as General Rivas  /  Greg Bryk as Chip Garnes  /  Kimberly Elise as Lorraine Deavers

Directed by James Gray  /  Written by Gray and Ethan Gross

James Gray's AD ASTRA (which is Latin for "to the stars") is an unqualified and masterful triumph.  Not only does this represent an absolute technical marvel that frequently inspires legitimate awe and wonder, but it's also a decidedly rare breed of sci-fi star trekking effort that's more nuanced, thoughtful, and thematically ambitious and contemplative.  The film is a visual dynamo, yes, but despite its embarrassment of production riches AD ASTRA isn't slavishly reliant on VFX and mindless mayhem like most other bloated space epics.  It's a much more compellingly rendered character examination piece about the sometimes fractured relationship between estranged fathers and sons (in this film's case, their separation is both emotional and literal, traversing the universe).  This makes Gray's film feel  intensely and dramatically intimate while simultaneously evoking galaxy spanning grandness.   

The premise here could not be anymore economical: An astronaut journeys into the cosmos in search of his once feared stranded and dead father, whose very scientific experiments in space decades earlier threatens life as we know it in our solar system.  Comparisons to scripting essentials of HEART OF DARKNESS and/or APOCALYPSE NOW seem inevitable, especially for how the physical and spiritual journey of the protagonist in AD ASTRA sort of mirrors that of those aforementioned pieces.  In the near future mankind has begun to reach out beyond Earth, even managing to establish colonies on the moon and bases of operation on Mars.  Despite these massive achievements, humanity hasn't really progressed further in terms of space travel, only reaching as far as Neptune, which is the last know whereabouts of the doomed mission named "The Lima Project", which was tasked with exploring extraterrestrial life over three decades ago.  The leader of that mission, astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), has been long since presumed missing and dead, along with his entire crew.  Miraculous evidence surfaces, though, that he may still in fact be alive and also causing massive power surges via his continued experiments orbiting Neptune that are having increasingly devastating impacts back home on Earth. 

Clifford, in short, needs to be put in check and stopped immediately...Colonel Kurtz style.  This leads to his very son being tasked to make the treacherous and long journey out to Neptune to stop this potential fanatic from causing more harm.  Clifford's adult kid in Roy (Brad Pitt) has become an upper echelon astronaut in his own right, and has made a reputation for never cracking under the limitless pressures of blasting off beyond Earth (his heart rate has infamously never gone over 80 beats per minute, even while under the worst of stresses that would destroy most men).  His mission is simple, yet deeply personal: Voyage to Neptune (via pit stops on the Moon and then Mars), attempt communication with his papa, and then deal with him, even if that means destroying Clifford's anti-matter experiments...and/or destroying Clifford himself. 



Again, the APOCALYPSE NOW echoes in AD ASTRA are enticingly and abundantly apparent, with the maybe crazy, maybe not Clifford being subbed in for Kurtz and space replacing a trip through Vietnam.  Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross never allow AD ASTRA's influences to obtrusively weigh it down; it pays homage to works of yesteryear while intrepidly forging its own narrative path.  Beyond that, Gray's sci-fi drama features other genre influences, especially in terms of reverberating the tones of classics like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the original SOLARIS, and even recent examples like INTERSTELLAR, all of which share the commonality of offering up unique game plans when it comes to doing things different with the genre that goes well against standard troupes and conventions.  Aside from past sci-fi inspirations, AD ASTRA evokes a Terrance Malick-ian vibe in terms of exploring the headspace of Roy has he deals with his inner hopes and fears about his life on Earth and his dangerous mission to come, all of which might culminate with the assassination of his dad.  That, in turn, forces Roy to evaluate his own loyalty and ties to both his duties as an astronaut and being a son dealing with parental abandonment issues.  The voiceovers throughout the film are crucial, I think, for allowing Roy to communicate his sense of crushing loneliness and isolation in space as well as the whirlwind of conflicting thoughts about reconnecting with Clifford after decades.  These monologues also reference the stylistic conceit of what Francis Ford Coppola did with a similar character in APOCALYPSE NOW. 

Perfectly complimenting all of this is the brilliantly and thanklessly restrained performance by Pitt, who - very akin to what Ryan Gosling achieved playing another astronaut in the masterful FIRST MAN - suggests a man that has internalized and repressed every nagging emotion that could get in the way of a successful mission.  It would be so easy for a lesser actor to play a role like this broadly, which I think would have hurt the film overall, so it's terrific that Pitt opts for a more tricky and disciplined approach of giving a minimalist and coldly calculating understated performance.  And Roy is a complex and richly intriguing character to elicit with minimal acting fuss, leaving Pitt completely equal to the task, and at a ripe 55-years-old the industry veteran seems to be aging like a fine wine with every new role he tackles.  He makes Roy a figure of fiery internalized intensity as well as one of deep seeded vulnerabilities and anxieties about the sheer profundity of confronting a living legend in his father after such an unfathomably long absence.  Pitt is as meticulously dallied in here as he has ever been in any role. 

Very little on Grays' career resume would suggest that he has the technical pedigree to pull off a production like this, but he more than shows here that he has both visual and scripting ambitiousness with his production, and he utterly nails every aspect of the former.  The filmmaking craftsmanship on display here is pretty extraordinary, starting with Gray's wise choice of hiring INTERSTELLAR cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and both in tandem find beguiling ways of making the unending vastness of space - something that we've seen countless times in films before - come refreshingly and thrillingly alive.  From the monochromatic tones of the moon's surface to the dusty red hued vistas of Mars to the majestically gorgeous blue rings of Neptune, Gray has engineered a new type of space odyssey of variety and texture.  In a noteworthy aesthetic move, the film uses an awful lot of tight close-ups, especially on Pitt, which serves as a nice stylistic counterpoint to the grandeur of - and sometimes haunting emptiness - of space that surrounds him. 

One of the other pleasures of AD ASTRA can be found in the intrepid cleverness shown in its action sequences, and even though this isn't an action heavy genre effort, per se, Gray still lovingly concocts real showstoppers.  Take, for instance, the breathtaking and frightening opening sequence of the film, showing Roy having to deal with a massive power surge head on, being knocked off of an unfathomably tall spaced antenna that starts at ground/Earth level and stretches out to pace.  Seeing him plummet down at such high altitudes packs such a visceral scary punch.  Even better is an absolutely bravura chase sequence on the moon, during which time Roy and company are speeding along the lunar landscape on buggies, which culminates in a chase as well as a gun fight in ultra low gravity as he tries to fight against invading pirates.  Two other scenes stand out big time as well, like a fist fight in Zero G as well as a traumatizing reveal as Roy and his team investigate a derelict science vessel while on route to Neptune.  I absolutely love it  when directors find new and exhilarating ways to present otherwise perfunctory movie moments that we've all seen so many times before that they've all but lost their luster. 

AD ASTRA is such a complete sci-fi package in the ways it offers up grandiose sights and sounds that we've come to expect from these types of pictures on top of being atypically observational and considerate with its characters and themes.  Gray makes an astonishingly sumptuous looking genre effort, to be sure, but he's hardly interested in CGI overkill and bombastic action.  The true epicenter and dramatic heartbeat of AD ASTRA remains with Roy and his cerebral battle within himself as he enters the stars, facing daunting and unknown challenges on multiple levels.  And by the time the film reaches a curiously subdued and, some would easily argue, surprisingly optimistic ending Gray fills viewers with the colossal message that, if we are indeed alone in the universe, all we are left to do is band together and help each other in all future endeavors.  And considering the deep nihilism that frequently punctuates science fiction as a whole, it's beyond refreshing to see that there is indeed light at the end of AD ASTRA's heart of darkness.  

This is truly one of 2019's best films. 

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