Ad Astra (2019)

“I must accept the fact I never really knew you. Nor am I you.”

It’s rather remarkable that, in a time littered with small budget dramas and endless high-top tent pole pictures, we get the rare film that deftly blends the two with as many artsy paintbrush strokes as there are theatrics. Here we have a movie that’s both explosively lax on details and intentionally languid. That’s stiff as a board and light as a feather. That’s as keen to explore the furthest pitches of the great unknown as it is to unearth simple, observable truths. Ad Astra is a confounding, complex, confusing and secular cinematic experience where the head and the heart finally reconcile in a place of healing, and it’s a religious experience where we actually leave preaching the penance we’re tasked with perpetuating. It’s a frustrating and level-headed piece of work.

The captain of this celestial ship is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a methodical man whose top priority is work. Ad Astra is set in the near future, where the advancement of technology has allowed mankind to build their own international space antennae with the hope of discovering and communicating with new life. Roy bravely steps out into space for some maintenance on a seemingly infinite Tower of Babel, scaling a ladder in what looks to be the exosphere, calmly stating, “at least it’s comfortable out here.” And you thought window washers cleaning a skyscraper was the top tier of acrophobia. He’s known for his cool demeanor, a pulse never soaring above 80 no matter the chaos, for being resolute. Most of all though, he’s known as the son of H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the man who traveled farther into space than anyone before him.

The basic plot of the film involves extreme global power surges that threaten the very existence of life of Earth. Low and behold, their origins are traced to Clifford McBride, believed to still be very much alive and intentionally marooned on Neptune. Roy is asked to reach out, to send a message, and becomes entangled in the fledgling pursuit of tracking down his long-lost father. He fights off space pirates on the dark side of the moon, unearths secrecy on Mars, is relentless in his pursuit through the lost and found of existence to find what feels like should belong to him. Ad Astra could’ve been more compelling with a less tangential script (separate bits featuring Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, and Donald Sutherland don’t amount to much of anything substantial), but that doesn’t diminish the resonance of its bittersweet, somber tone. The emotions in this picture border on being volcanic, building to point of cataclysmic eruption.

Following up on the same ideas and themes as his masterful film The Lost City of Z, James Gray explores similar territories whilst changing the POV from the holy ghost of a father to that of a wandering, wondering son. And while a few epic set pieces are truly stunning to behold in the IMAX format (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures some of the most dazzling space visuals I’ve ever seen), the flesh and bones of the story is told by the many close-ups used throughout. Close-ups inherently make the world of the picture look smaller, more intimate, and yet great actors are able to emote how massive the moment feels within the soul. This might be Brad Pitt’s most restrained performance to date, and thus will no doubt go as one of his most overlooked, but I can’t help but believe it’s one of his most studied. What could have been cold and calculated instead comes off as natural and personal. His slightly wrinkled forehead shows the slow turn towards old age, and his big blue eyes pool like fountains of youth, making the perfect combination for a grown man who fearlessly chases the ghost of his childhood. It’s a galactic game of ghost in the graveyard played between father and son.

Overwhelmingly somber and intensively pensive, Ad Astra is the kind of movie that alienates by way of its very nature. It’s less powerful than Interstellar, nowhere near as technologically groundbreaking as Gravity, but it’s also a combination of the two fueled by the Kubrickian inspired ruminations on faith and family and the limited length of one man’s reach. Ad Astra left me underwhelmed, not for lack of effort or despite hot it dares to attempt so many death-defying acts, but because the story ends so neatly. James Gray’s latest film carries the weight – perhaps even choosing to solely bear the burden – of attempting to eulogize an absent father who purposely disappeared into the stars, relaying the sobering affirmation that the search for other intelligent forms of life is no different than trying to sift a Yukon Valley for gold. You can look for what might not even be there, or you can bask in the water. That Ad Astra tackles – albeit swinging and missing here and there – such a philosophical quandary is all the more reason to see it, to ponder it, and to wrestle with it.

“In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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