Rated PG-13 | 2h 2min | Adventure, Drama, Mystery | 20 September 2019 (USA)
Back in July of this year, the great men and women of NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing with a live TV broadcast and other events—and the world celebrated along with them. Indeed, that gala celebration has spawned a new interest in space travel, with great films such as the joyous movie “Astronaut” and the excellent biopic piece “Armstrong.” So, I figured that it was only a matter of time before the newly revitalized space travel genre would get even more A-list treatment.
As a fan of Brad Pitt, as well as of intriguing science-fiction films, I was pretty excited to see the new space opera “Ad Astra,” especially since the film’s director, James Gray, said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that the movie would feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.” He added that the film would be “very ‘Heart of Darkness.’ It’s sort of like, if you got ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘2001’ in a giant mash-up.”
That’s some pretty impressive material to draw from, but would Gray be able to pull off such a monumental task? Yes, but with some very dark implications.
A Son Seeks His Father
Speaking of astronauts, Brad Pitt plays one in the film, which is about a son traveling to the edge of our solar system in order to discover whether his father is still alive. Pitt steps into the role of ice-cold astronaut similar to how Ryan Gosling portrayed Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”
Pitt is Major Roy McBride, who is tasked with carrying out a top-secret mission to find his famous astronaut father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford McBride had bid farewell to his wife and teenage son to engage in a similarly epic mission to travel through the depths of known space in order to try to make contact with extraterrestrial life. That mission was called “Project Lima” and was carried out years prior to when the events of the film take place.
During Project Lima, Clifford McBride mysteriously vanished without a trace and was considered by all official accounts deceased. However, now strange power surges seem to be emanating from a location close to where Roy’s father disappeared.
Roy’s superiors, on the Space Commission, seem to believe that his father is still out there somewhere—alive. They also think that Clifford somehow discovered antimatter and may be somehow generating the power surges, which are becoming increasingly dangerous to Earth.
The Space Commission is confident that Roy is the best candidate for the mission to find his father because he is the most cool, calm, and collected astronaut alive. In fact, during the film’s opening scenes, where he falls off an immense space antenna and begins falling toward Earth, it’s rumored that his heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute. Now that’s a man who is calm under pressure.
Pitt is convincing as a cold and methodical man of science. He affects an austere, sometimes impenetrable countenance that sometimes makes you wonder if he has ice running through his veins.
Jones is also well cast as Roy’s equally frigid father, the most phenomenal (and most accomplished) astronaut to have ever lived, and whose long list of accolades and achievements is only matched by his giant ego.
As Roy watches some of the last recordings that his father made, he remarks, “What did he find out there … in the abyss?”
And when Clifford says in the tapes, “The world awaits our discovery, my son,” you can clearly see what Gray was talking about when he mentioned the “Apocalypse Now” comparison.
Without spoiling key plot points, it bears mentioning that the film does unfortunately ascribe a heart of darkness to the man with the most faith in God, so as to question that belief.
The film’s initial scenes are impressive, and I’d first thought that the gigantic antenna was a space elevator. However, it turned out to be a device that scientists had hoped would allow them to make contact with alien life.
The space travel scenes were also extremely well crafted, and I found my lower jaw had literally dropped during quite a few of them. Complementing cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s absolutely stunning camerawork is an epic, sci-fi-oozing musical score by composer Max Richter.
“Ad Astra” is a remarkable science-fiction odyssey about a man in search of his father on the outer fringes of space. Although there are some action scenes here and there, don’t expect this film to be your typical summertime blockbuster such as “Deep Impact.” “Ad Astra” is much more of a nuanced, measured film that draws you into its near-future world and asks you to come along on a solar-system-spanning ride into the darkest reaches of outer space and of man’s soul.
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 20
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5 (4.0 for aesthetics)