DIRECTED BY: JAMES GRAY/2019
Director James Gray follows up his last effort, The Lost City of Z, with another tale of the relationship between fathers and their sons with the Brad Pitt led Ad Astra. Ad Astra is an introspective and deeply personal film, set on the grandest of scales, and fully deserving of being seen in IMAX. With the visuals, cast and budget of a summer blockbuster, and the intimacy and character-driven story of an art house film, Ad Astra will find that this might help it have strong legs at the box office.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut who works on the space antenna, a giant structure that has been built on earth that reaches through the sky and just into space. Roy is a calm man, so much so that his heart rate never goes above 80. He is always in control, even when he is plunging from the space antenna to earth in a fall that rivals Tom Cruise’s halo jump in Mission: Impossible-Fallout. Roy’s calmness makes him a great asset to the government, but it has the effect of shutting other people out, especially his wife Eve (Liv Tyler).
Roy’s father was astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero for his efforts to lead the team called ‘The Lima Project’. Their mission was to head out to outer reaches of our solar system and try to get a better view of the universe, with the goal of discovering intelligent life. He disappeared 30 years ago near Neptune and was never heard from again. Now, power surges originating from that area in space are travelling through the Milky Way and striking the earth, threatening the earth’s existence. Roy is tasked to travel to the lunar base on the moon, then to Mars, before heading out into space to stop these surges.
Ad Astra is Latin for “To the stars…”, and the film truly delivers on this phrase in every way. The film is beautiful to look at, and this complements the larger-than-life objective Roy McBride is sent to achieve. While this film could have easily been built as a summer blockbuster with thrill-a-minute action, or swelling musical scores to heighten the tension, James Gray instead what he does best, and simply allows the story to unfold at its own pace.
This might make the film a bit too introspective for some, but even those who would bristle at the idea of introspection, they will be won over by the performances, and the unexpected forays into other genres like action, and even a little horror. The pace and transitions of the film are as calm as Roy McBride’s pulse, allowing for the story to truly unfold without telegraphing too quickly where this is all headed.
It is often said that science fiction leans hard into the ideas of our search for meaning, and that is definitely present here. There is also subtle nods and commentary about our relationship to God, especially feeling his presence in the larger cosmos, and his lack of presence in our everyday life on Earth. Commentary about the human condition is often seen in the subtleties of a scene, and in the comments provided in the dialogue. The colonization of the moon is seen to be another example that human condition doesn’t really change. We still like to plunder, pillage, and fight over stuff. Land. Resources. Titles.
The bold initiative to “do things differently this time” that would be expected for daring explorers to have when creating new colonies in space have instead yielded to more of the same. The moon colony is just a mirror image of what humans have created on Earth. Shopping malls, Applebee’s, and entertainment is what the moon in this “near future” story is all about. Nations are still jockeying for land and territory on the moon, and rogue elements and pirates operate outside the established law, much like they do now on Earth. Times may change, but the human condition is still the same.
The longing for finding intelligent life as a means to transcending the worst parts of our human condition and becoming something better is a central motif to the motivations of space exploration by both H. Clifford McBride, and now Roy, but also Clifford’s former friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), a Colonel who accompanies Roy on his mission. A feeling that one doesn’t belong to the place they’ve called home, drives them to search for the place where they do belong. It is out “there” and so, Ad Astra, to the stars they go.
2019 is becoming a monumental year for Brad Pitt professionally as he delivers his second strong performance just months after appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Ad Astra may be the better performance, and between these 2 roles, Pitt could garner some serious consideration for awards season.
Ad Astra is the rare film that is ambitious, humble, introspective, and accessible. It defies genre tropes, and doesn’t seek to manipulate the audience in the manner of typical blockbuster type films. James Gray has shown that even on the grandest of scales, he is able to ground his films in the sort of stuff all humans have experienced. Questions of significance, the search for God, the complicated relationships of parents and their children, and the ways in which humans continue to fail in our journey to evolve are all tropes he touches on, and it humanizes Roy McBride’s journey and helps us see our own journey in these areas. For just a couple of hours, this is a film that truly takes you Ad Astra: To the stars!