Ad Astra

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/23/19 03:37:40

"Heart of darkness on the edge of the solar system."
5 stars (Awesome)

A regular pet peeve of mine with this sort of movie in particular is the urge to reduce something awesome in scale to a dysfunctional relationship between two people, like neither filmmakers nor audiences have the imagination to be affected by more than their personal concerns. "Ad Astra" is that in spades, but the fact that it's that from the start maybe kind of skeptical about it kind of turns that idea on its head a bit. All of this may be baked into the plot rather than hidden underneath, and that very fact makes certain things dubious and more uncomfortable rather than simple pandering.

The film ponders a future where the exploration and exploitation of space has become a sort of public-private partnership, with astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on an antenna in low-earth orbit when some sort of electromagnetic pulse hits, sending him falling to Earth and blacking out large swathes of the planet. The source is some sort of antimatter reaction near Neptune, where a SETI mission captained by Roy's legendary father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) went radio-silent sixteen years ago, already away from Earth for 13 years. It had an antimatter engine, and Space Command hopes that having Roy transmit a message to his father from a relay station on Mars might yield some sort of response. The whole thing is highly classified, of course, with both the former astronaut sent as a partner (Donald Sutherland) and the red planet's chief administrator (Ruth Negga) knowing things about H. Clifford McBride and the Lima project that Roy doesn't.

The scene where the Generals are briefing Roy and seemingly suggesting what in many other films is the last-ditch, emotion-over-cold-logic climax as Plan A comes early enough in the film to play as a clever subversion of that trope, giving writer/director James Gray the whole film to examine this thing that often serves as a shortcut because it seems instinctively right. The audience already knows it's more complicated than that; the audience is privy to Roy's inner monologue and it shows a man well aware that he's hiding a fair amount of turmoil behind a stoicism so well-nurtured that his heart literally never races. It gives the film an intriguingly pessimistic emotional core, one often played with calm devastation, made out of relationships that cannot be fixed and damage that cannot be undone.

The movie is very much Brad Pitt's show - he's in almost every scene with supporting cast members often sidelined before it's expected - and he's great at displaying that damage and showing he's smart enough to be aware of it. He and Gray seem to get that the trick here is not hiding what Roy is feeling, but only showing enough of it to reassure the people around him, and then - both in voice-over and on-screen performance - adding just enough anger to make the audience unsure just how much more is being held back. Roy has deep wounds but is well-practiced in putting on a different face, and Pitt is great at presenting both those layers and how one is meant to cover the other.

It's hopefully not too much of a spoiler to say that Gray and company did not cast Tommy Lee Jones to appear on a few screens to show what happened decades ago, and his end of it is brilliant too. He's good in those, hinting that has the sort of charm that makes people trust him but not quite forming a personal connection (interestingly, Gray uses Clifford's talk of both religion and science to make him seem a bit disconnected from other people), and it makes what he does later feel even more true-to-life. He's toxic but a slow poison as relates to Roy, in some ways too banal to remain villainous by the time his issues are laid bare. It's a clever way to use a movie star like Jones; the audience wants him to rave or be a good-hearted curmudgeon, but the filmmakers don't give them that, and the void seems greater as a result.

The movie is stunning on an audio-visual level as well. Gray's team never particularly apes the style of 2001 but often seems to use it as a reference, building a world that has one foot in the practical austerity of space as an engineering project and one in its increasing commercialization. Ad Astra is shot on film and that captures both the medium's warmth and grainy seeming imperfection in the emotional moments, and if the exteriors of the Moon and Mars are in large part CGI, they capture the still, conceptual purity of a matte painting rather than indulging in haphazard noodling. There's a part of me that isn't sure there should be more or less of the kind of nutty action Gray sprinkles throughout the first half - the movie doesn't really need moon pirates or zero-gravity mandrills but it's hard not to want more once you've seen them - but ultimately they keep the audience engaged on a long trip, and make a longer one seem to feel its length even though it is given less time. The science is just as bad as it needs to be for a given scene to work, but Gray wisely avoids calling too much attention to that or breaking the film's own rules.

That's a thing that could jolt a person right out of the movie if handled poorly, but Gray never seems to step wrong. Like his previous film "The Lost City of Z", "Ad Astra" is a grand adventure that dives into the obsessions of the adventurer and shows just how difficult it is to emerge from the emotional quagmire, and while that can sound terribly unappealing, it merges the two scales of the story as well as any movie ever has.

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