Ad Astra (2019)
Ad Astra (2019)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 2 min.

Release Date: September 20th, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: James Gray, Dan Bradley Actors: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Loren Dean

 


 

I

n the near future, humanity looks to the stars for both intelligent life and progress. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is one such space traveler, who ventures out to the International Space Antenna with a clear mind, invulnerable to outside influences or internal struggles – despite his frequent isolation, his inability to connect with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler), and his constant questioning of intention and existence. “I always wanted to be an astronaut.”

With plenty of voiceover pondering, McBride recounts his journeys across the universe, from a harrowing explosion on the antenna (resulting in dizzying yet wondrous cinematography, not just from a fall but also from a mind-rattling parachute landing) caused by global electrical storms, to a space pirate ambush on the moon. When he’s informed by the highest authorities at U.S. Space Command that his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared 29 years ago on the first manned expedition to the outer rim of the solar system (the Lima Project, dabbling in antimatter reactions), might still be alive – and at the heart of the destructive power surges – Roy accepts a mission to head to Mars. There, he can send a secure laser message all the way to Neptune’s orbit, hoping to communicate with Clifford about the catastrophes and a plan to cease them. The major’s first stop is Tycho Base on the moon, chaperoned by senior official Colonel Thomas F. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), followed by a transport to Ersa Station on Mars using the Cepheus spacecraft.

The search for extraterrestrial life is a staggeringly grand science-fiction concept, especially when presented with this level of realism. Like “Interstellar” and “Arrival,” “Ad Astra” begins chiefly on Earth, where the settings are only moderately futuristic; plenty of contraptions are remote-controlled or voice-activated, transactions are conducted through fingerprints or hand scans, and the surface of the moon is hotly disputed, generating war zones. Plus, the moon base boasts an Applebee’s and a Subway. But a grounding in a comfortable representation of reality gives the impression that this isn’t outrageous sci-fi as it is merely credible headway. It’s a fascinating depiction of believable scenarios for space expeditions and colonization, even as it splits its designs between familiar elements from ‘70s imagery (such as rockets, spacesuits, rovers, and zero-gravity environments) to 23rd century visions (such as a massive station orbiting Neptune and complex structures built on the Red Planet). Virtually all of the designs are offered up in a sensible way, so as to ease audiences into the period of considerable technological advancements; as long as they don’t think they’re witnessing the worlds of “Star Wars,” viewers will surely buy into the various spacefaring scenarios.

“Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding.” Problematically, writer/director James Gray can’t tell just the tale of mystery and drama that he wants. He’s also compelled to inject action and excitement into what could have been a solely contemplative, reflective examination of mankind and its fight between insularity and exploration, and its desire to probe creation and purpose. With the cheerless film noir narration and a continual melancholiness (fostering a tone like “Blade Runner”), it certainly could have been a complex study of the psychological toll of an astronaut’s career, from accomplishments to failures and obsession to madness.

Yet a collection of intermittent thrills pepper the landscape, from a distress call to a car chase to a hijacking. With Max Richter’s unnerving music and frequent builds of tension, “Ad Astra” could have taken a turn into alien horror, keeping viewers at the edges of their seats in the vein of “Event Horizon,” “Moon,” or “Annihilation.” And, indeed, a few very unexpected things occur. But it’s awfully cautious and plodding the rest of the time, regularly amplifying the wonder and the mystery, but letting down with its revelations. The pacing is too meditative for the bursts of action; and the plot isn’t wild enough to make those moments seem fitting. Nevertheless, Pitt gives a striking performance (essentially a one-man show), while thought-provoking ideas abound. “Ad Astra’s” ambition is far more speculative and loftier than its execution.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10