Film review: “Ad Astra” (2019)

“Ad Astra” (2019)


Running time: 103 minutes

Written by: James Gray and Ethan Gross

Directed by: James Gray

Featuring:  Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland

Roy McBride: “I do what I do because of my dad. He was a hero. He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge. Because up there is where our story is going to be told.”

Released this week after many delays as well as shrouded in secrecy is the latest film from James Gray, “Ad Astra” (2019), a science fiction odyssey that harkens back to previous films within its genre, in particular Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), as it aims to comment on mankind and its lofty aims to search the stars in hopes of gaining some greater understanding as to the purpose of not only our existence but life in general. “Ad Astra” also owes a debt to the classic Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and of course Gray’s previous outing the massively underrated “Lost City of Z” (2016).

“Ad Astra”, the meaning of which is in an opening statement of sorts is part of the very essence of the film which as an audience member you will be reminded of time and again as the plot and narrative are interwoven so that they are almost indistinguishable from each other, much like an effect that is accomplished in “Apocalypse Now”. This film not only acts as a journey for the main character as he hops from Earth to the Moon to Mars and finally to the orbit of Neptune but for the audience as well. As the audience we are given bits and pieces of information throughout the running time so that we arrive both physically and mentally to a point where we attain knowledge that the main character has actually known his entire life but has kept such a tight control that it has effected him physiologically. This control is seen as a strength to others but has been a stumbling block which as he gains knowledge he becomes a more emotional being.

It would be simple to view this film as what it means to be a Father as well as a son, with that relationship taking centerstage around a sci-fi maguffin. However, there is so much more going on than that, it also encompasses elements of everyday life especially in terms of relationships and emotions. One of the key psychological elements of the movie is abandonment, which is played out by many of the characters as well as Earth itself in relation to the sci-fi aspect. Abandonment is a complex phenomenon in psychology that is thought to stem from childhood loss or trauma. People with the fear of abandonment may tend to display compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that affect their relationships, ultimately resulting in the abandonment they dread becoming a reality. Although Roy McBride thinks that he is in control of his life both internally and externally he creates a shell that nothing can penetrate, in a way this film over the course of its running time breaks down that shell, finally rupturing it so he is able to make connections, understanding himself and others in the process.

Although there are few female characters as well as few real non-white roles on the surface of it, in fact there are women throughout the movie that assist McBride in his mission, enabling the success of his journey all the way to Neptune. Many of the female characters in fact have a truth to give to McBride assisting his healing and revealing truths he could not have found out any other way. Not only that but the look of the future is multicultural as well see on the Moon as well as beyond which is something that is going to be accurate as move through this century.

“Ad Astra” is et in the near future, the Solar System is being struck by mysterious power surges of unknown origin, threatening the future of human life. After surviving an incident on an immense space antenna caused by one of these surges, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of famed pioneering astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed by U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom), that the source of the surges has been traced to the “Lima Project” base. The Lima Project had been sent some twenty-six years prior to search for intelligent life from the farthest regions of the Solar System under Clifford McBride’s leadership, and disappeared sixteen years prior in orbit around Neptune. A SpaceCom officer informs Roy that they believe Clifford may still be alive, and he is tasked with the mission of travelling to Mars to try and establish communication with him.

This is a film that has been almost entirely designed by co-writer and director James Gray who is a classic filmmaker, using tropes, genres, themes and narrative tools from other major films, subverting those into what must be one of the most personal stories told in the sci-fi genre. There are no space battles, aliens, robots, A.I. or anytime else you may be able to think of in terms of the genre, it is the most personal story framed around familiar arcs. It is also directed to a point that each scene or frame is meticulously planned, there really is little use of obvious CGI except for some wide shots and the obvious opening, otherwise spacewalks, and landscapes seem real and physical, so there is use of the close up or mid shot which I found refreshing, it seems tangible as well as solid and thought out. As usual Gray produces a technically flawless piece of filmmaking, harnessing the talents of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, composer Max Richter, costumer Albert Wolsky and so many more people into a film that any auteur would be proud of. Even so this is a precise film it sidesteps the feeling of coolness into coldness into something warm, mainly because of the combination of the performances, the special effects, the production and the plot, something many high minded sci-fi films could learn from.

Of course the central performance is that of Brad Pitt as Roy McBride who is as good as he has ever been, making this role his own playing it with real emotion not giving anything away but offering an honest performance that is not action hero, lothario or protagonist, but that of a husband and son, failing at both. For an actor who was seen as good looking as Robert Redford it is amazing to believe him in “Ad Astra” as the son of Tommy Lee Jones’ character, he operates with a worn face as well as a worn psyche. Speaking of Tommy Lee Jones who is seen mostly on video monitors but does have a key part especially in the third act, he threatens to steal the film as he offers one of the more serious and real performances of his career as the absent Father who casts a giant shadow over the entire film, mush like Brando did in “Apocalypse Now”, the difference being Jones is not interested in upstaging anyone, he has become that legendary Hollywood star who is happy to be the character actor of the film. In support the standouts for me are the great Donald Sutherland in a brief but important role and the fantastic Ruth Negga who is nothing if not one of the most talented actresses around.

“Ad Astra” is one of those films that we are told do not get made anymore, an adult drama that wraps itself up in themes and meaning of human life. The difference maybe is that it uses a genre in this case the sci-fi one to illustrate its points to audiences as well as offering a vehicle that might attract audience and not alienate them. Of course writing the film there are those plot points and themes that will be familiar to the sci-fi genre which gives audiences something to hang on to. The difference is where the personal themes and plot comes into play which for me was the most enjoyable part of “Ad Astra”. The fact that the narrative is also a road movie of sorts is also compelling with the realness of space reveal, it mundanity as well as its dangers come to the fore in a few key scenes that increase the tension so that we have long segments of life punctuated by action. Although the movie is linear in nature it is not told in real tie but does take real time into account so that we witness Mcbride breaking down on his trip from Mars to Neptune which does become harrowing, you feel he might not actually make it.

As the idea of abandonment is a central part of this film it is interesting to note how important mindfulness and psychology are interwoven into this film with McBride having to undergo testing by computers to evaluate his mental health, which does change from the start of the movie to the conclusion. This society we find ourselves in has recognised the importance of mental health in combination with physical health which shows a society that is progressive even as the Earth might be thrown back to a state of powerlessness.

Finally I recommend “Ad Astra” highly as one of the films of the year, it needs to be seen in cinemas on the largest screen possible, it manages to be a grand epic film while concentrating on what makes us human with themes that are universally recognisable, go see now.

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