Monday, September 23, 2019

Movie Review: Ad Astra

Ad Astra **** / *****
Directed by: James Gray.
Written by: James Gray & Ethan Gross.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Tommy Lee Jones (H. Clifford McBride), Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos), Donald Sutherland (Thomas Pruitt), Kimberly Elise (Lorraine Deavers), Loren Dean (Donald Stanford), Donnie Keshawarz (Capt. Lawrence Tanner), Sean Blakemore (Willy Levant), Bobby Nish (Franklin Yoshida), LisaGay Hamilton (Adjutant General Amelia Vogel), John Finn (Stroud), John Ortiz (General Rivas), Liv Tyler (Eve McBride). 
It is a minor miracle that a film like James Gray’s Ad Astra exists. It is a big, brainy sci fi film with little action, a slow pace, and an introspective outlook – asking big questions, and perhaps delivering smaller answers. Yes, it stars Brad Pitt – but still, a studio spending $80 million on a film like this – with a director like James Gray, who has been a fine, sometimes great filmmaker for 25 years now, but has never really had a hit is great to see – and would be cause for optimism, if of course, it wasn’t Fox who made it, who has now been gobbled up by Disney – who isn’t likely to make something like this again. So for now, let’s just be thankful this one exists.
The film set in the near future stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, a stoic, emotionally closed off, perhaps depressed astronaut. His father was the legendary H. Clifford McBride, who 30 years ago – when Roy was 16 – took a job heading into deep space, and then completely went off the grid 13 years later. Roy has been haunted by his missing father for all these years – which is probably the reason he has become so emotionally closed down and depressed – which has ended his marriage, and basically left him alone. He connects with no one. We hear his voice throughout Ad Astra – but it’s mainly either in voiceover, or when taking “psychological evaluations” – administered by computers. It’s by design that most of the other characters in the film come and go fairly quickly – have a scene or two, and then are gone. Roy is alone – and he wants to be.
Roy is called into to see his superiors one day after a near death experience, caused by massive electroshocks that have hit the whole world. He thinks it’s a debrief – but it’s not. They have traced those shocks to near Neptune – and tell Roy that they think his long lost father not only isn’t dead after all, but is the one responsible for setting off those shocks. They want to send Roy to Mars, by way of the moon, so he can send a message to his father – and perhaps get a response. Otherwise, if these shocks continue to happen, the earth may not survive.
Ad Astra is one of those science fiction films that is more about man’s place in the universe, than about action, special effects or aliens. Gray, I think smartly, does have two intense “action” sequences fairly early in the film – the first is the opening scene, where Pitt is working on some sort of large tower that seemingly extends into space, and has to parachute out when the shocks hit, and the second is when they arrive on the moon (that Roy complains humans have travelled to just to rebuild the same things – we do see an Applebees for example) when there is a car chase with space pirates. Yes, there are moments of great intensity throughout the rest of the film – but these are the moments of action in the film. Most of the rest is about questions.
Brad Pitt is having a great year (making his recent comments about stepping back from acting even sadder) – and if two performances could more show his range than the ones in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the one here, I don’t know what they are. Pitt can, of course, cruise through many movies with his charm – even some of his best performance (like say Moneyball) do that. He doesn’t do that here. He has dialed that way back. His Roy is a broken man in many ways – a lonely and depressed person who doesn’t want to let anyone get close to him. These types of roles can be tricky to play – they sometimes come across as an actor doing nothing, or else can be quite dull to watch. But Pitt anchors the movies – he’s in practically every scene, and you know what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling in every one. It is a quietly stunning performance – one of his best. The supporting cast are all quite good – even if, by design, we never really get to know them as people. Still, actors like Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga come in, and own a scene or two, and are gone. When Tommy Lee Jones does eventually show up – he has more to do, but not all that much more – even if he is characteristically wonderful.
There will be debates about what Ad Astra means. On the surface level, it is a film about fathers and sons, the pain of being abandoned – and how that ripples through the child’s life. In a strange way, it’s the flip side of Gray’s last film – The Lost City of Z – which concentrated on an explorer who left his home, his family and his son, for long periods at a time in order to go on his exploration. Ad Astra focused on that son who was left behind. I do think the film works on a larger, metaphorical level as well – one about God, and how humanity responds when they feel that God has become essentially an absentee father figure. The silence of God is, of course, a long running theme that has often been explored in movies – half of Ingmar Bergman’s output for example, or more recently Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Gray has given it a sci fi twist. You can choose to see Ad Astra then as either a very depressing movie – or, in a different way, a hopeful one. In the end, Roy seems to learn to stop looking upwards – to space, to the heavens – for answers, for meaning, and start looking here on earth.
It is all wrapped up in a stunning package by Gray – who has made his most ambitious, and best, film to date in Ad Astra. The film looks amazing – from that opening, intense scene, to the scenes on a fiery Mars, to the climax in space. I’m sure Neil Degrasse Tyson is preparing a Twitter thread right now about how the science doesn’t work, but screw him – it works in the context of the movie. And the film is quiet, slow burn stunner. Go in expecting to have to be patient – to have to think. The results are worth it.

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