“Ad Astra” translates to “To the Stars” and in this James Gray-directed film, which opened Friday, September 20th, Brad Pitt travels to the far reaches of outer space in search of his astronaut father long thought to be dead. (Tommy Lee Jones).”
The setting is “The near future. A time of both hope and conflict.” Earth has apparently established several bases on neighboring celestial bodies, including a base on the moon and an underground base on Mars that is one of the few such human outposts not harmed by recurring uncontrolled releases of anti-matter. The authorities think the electrical impulses originate from the long-ago Lima Project, which H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) headed up, journeying as far as Neptune and Saturn, the farthest point man has penetrated in space.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is assigned to find his father and the fear is definitely unspoken but potential that he will be part of a mission to eliminate the now-famous space hero. Brad is told, by Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of the senior McBride, that suspicion for the electrical battering that the solar system is taking, which threatens Earth and the very survival of mankind, is perhaps something that H. Clifford McBride has caused. So, they reach out to his now 45-year-old son—also an astronaut—hoping that this tie to the man who may be intentionally hiding out—-will help find him.
I was reminded of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” with Pitt playing the Martin Sheen part as the man sent to find Marlon Brando’s mad man/god. There is a religious undercurrent running throughout the film, including these words, spoken upon the burial in space of a deceased colleague: “May you meet your Redeemer face-to-face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a believer in alien life forms, says, “I know for certain I am doing God’s work.” He was so convinced that his expedition would find intelligent life in the universe that he took drastic steps to prevent a mutiny from the others in his party. Ironically, the son performs an act nearly as violent in order to find his father.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) ponders the meaning of existence at several points. “We go to work. We do our jobs. We’re here and then we’re gone,” says the alienated Pitt. He is a cool customer who, more than once recites in voice-over the information that “I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else.” Compartmentalized is another way he describes his ability to deal with emotions. He seems to recognize, early on, (especially after the fantastic opening sequence where he survives a harrowing space accident where a robotic arm crashes and takes the orbiting space station down with it), that “ I should feel something. I survived.” By film’s end, the very basic lesson that we must live and love those close to us and that his father “could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him” has been conveyed.
I couldn’t help but remember Jennifer Aniston’s remark at the time of her divorce from Pitt that he was “lacking an emotional sensitivity chip.” I did find Pitt’s acting spot-on, especially in the scene where he abandons the script that has been prepared for him and speaks from the heart via a secure laser transmission designed to reach his father, wherever he may be hiding in the Universe. The younger McBride acknowledges early on that “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him,” but admits that, “I must accept the fact I never really knew him.”
Another echo from an iconic flick is that of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Not only is the path through the solar system that Brad’s character takes the same as that of the ship in Stanley Kubrick’s film, but James Gray finds a way to work in apes—something that seemed out of the realm of possibility.
Cinematography & Visual Effects:
Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is fantastic. The sets and visual effects in “Ad Astra” are completely believable. It’s a bit off-putting to see the base on the Moon crassly commercialized, right down to a Subway restaurant and a Virgin Atlantic store, but the set design and the harrowing action sequences set in space are completely believable and well done.
Nicely-done, Brad Pitt! It’s great to see him back in leading man form and aging gracefully. This is the second film for Pitt this year that showed he is more than a pretty face, with his pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod and this solo turn equally good. It’s nice to see a return to form for Pitt, who has too often had his acting ability obscured by his good looks and the ubiquitous press coverage of Brangelina.
Screenplay & Directing:
The screenplay was written by James Gray and Ethan Gross and directed by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “The Immigrants”). Brad Pitt and James Gray had planned to work together on two previous occasions, but circumstances intervened. Gray, in an NPR interview, acknowledged the “mash-up” of “Apocalypse Now” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and expressed his admiration for character-driven films of the seventies, and is also quoted as having said, “This all sounds very pretentious, but I feel like love is a very important subject.”
While Brad Pitt is fine in his leading man role, there is a waste of the talent of other cast members. Most notably, Liv Tyler has almost no part at all as the love interest who complains that even when he is there, Pitt is MIA. It as sheer coincidence that I watched a television special entitled “The Last Hours of Phil Hartman” that detailed how Hartman’s wife, possibly influenced by drugs and drink, but growing increasingly frustrated by his workaholic tendencies and his emotional distance from her, shot and killed him and then herself. While there is no homicidal wife in this space opera, the emotional underpinnings of the film are universal.
Donald Sutherland is another fine talent who is wasted in a very small part as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of Tommy Lee Jones. He isn’t in the film for long. It seems as though the sequence in which Sutherland appears could be eliminated entirely without any harm to the narrative structure. Ruth Negga (“Loving”) also has a brief appearance as Helen Lantos, the Commander of the Mars space base, who assists Brad Pitt as he attempts to board the ship that will journey to Jupiter seeking his father, who Brad last saw at age sixteen.
While there are many exciting sequences, sometimes it feels as though they are being strung together like beads on a necklace. It is an exciting film, but there are slow portions in between the stringing of those action beads. And the film feels long, because it is—a distressingly common trend, it seems.
I’m wondering how the space aficionados will deal with facts in the film that are dropped into the mix, like the fact that it is going to take Pitt 79 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes to get from Mars to Neptune. I don’t pretend to know enough to begin to poke holes in scientific inaccuracies.