AD ASTRA (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language)
Released: September 20, 2019
Runtime: 122 minutes
Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Sean Blakemore, John Finn, John Ortiz

GRAVITY: A bold, breathtaking, Oscar-winning visual marvel of space exploration. A work of substance, spectacle, and soul.

AD ASTRA: Hold my Tang.

As triumphs of filmmaking go, Ad Astra is a daunting achievement, a full-fledged masterpiece. Awesome to behold, humbly profound, and defying easy explanation, it’s a feat that other films in 2019 will be hard-pressed to match.

Set in the “near future,” this is philosophical sci-fi. Challenging yet accessible, it’s sort of Kubrick meets Cameron with the soul of Malick (along with his internal monologue).

Sans fantasy, it takes place in a plausible real world. Or, well, galaxy. The moon is colonized. Mars is militarized. Beyond that, only one man and his crew has seen and explored beyond. That team has long since lost contact with earth, and its hero-leader – H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) – is feared to have gone mad.

Now his son Roy (Brad Pitt), also a career astronaut, is sent on a secret mission to make contact with his father (putting a paternal twist on the Apocalypse Now construct) to see if he’s still alive and, if so, at what cost? There’s also a threat to the galaxy emanating from Clifford’s Neptune base, which further raises the stakes.

That premise could comfortably fit a gaudy Hollywood tentpole, and in the hands of a more mainstream director the exact same script could easily be rendered with bombastic aesthetics and blockbuster tropes. But director James Gray is the greatest working American filmmaker that virtually nobody knows about, and he elevates the conventions of his screenplay (co-written by Ethan Gross of TV’s Fringe) light years past cliché to something that has to be wrestled with, but with contemplative engagement.

That sounds like work (and it is) but not laboriously so. Deep but not dense, Ad Astra comes at you patiently, drawing us in rather than keeping us at arm’s length. The plotting mirrors the psychological escalation, taking surprising turns that grip you – like a truly WTF moment about forty minutes in (thank you, spoiler-free marketing!). From there, all bets are off about where this is going, and how, but as viewers our chips are all in.

Gray is a director obsessed with, well, obsession. The self-destructive kind, even when heroic.

Most of his stories have been contemporary and set in his native New York, but recently Gray has expanded to the past: The Immigrant (also in New York) and The Lost City of Z (the Amazon), but now he launches into the future. Obsession remains at the core but it’s more pensive here, repressed and controlled, even mastered…until it’s not.

And thankfully, Ad Astra isn’t reduced to Daddy Issues. The dynamic is there, certainly, what with an absent father and a son carrying that burden, but it’s merely an entry point to a more complex psychological excavation.

An aura of God also permeates, but ultimately Ad Astra is spiritual, not religious. Yes, Christian references are there (even surprisingly direct ones, given the genre) and one could pick out possible metaphors (including a loving son serving as a bridge of salvation between the world and an angry father), but these are ultimately used as commentary about us – about humanity, not deity.

The same goes for the search for intelligent alien life. Indeed, any external form of exploration (no matter how grand or galactic) is not a spiritual one. That’s internal. At best, the external is evidence of God, a witness to Him. The journey to find Him, however, happens within.

Yet the spiritual themes are there, and they are bedrock to what Ad Astra is saying and mulling: our search (whether it be for God, for aliens, or scientific truth) is a search for answers. Ad Astra asks if that’s a noble pursuit…or hubris? Maybe both (and I stress maybe), but peace – which is the desired end of seeking answers – is only truly found in the submission to mystery.

Brad Pitt seems to be going on this journey himself (not just as an actor but a person) in a personalized performance that’s unmatched in his career. Conventional wisdom often describes Pitt as a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. Wrong. Yes, he’s had some great character turns, but that milieu for him is also very spotty.

However, when he shuns all affectation (accents, archetypes, and the like) and plays it straight and sincere, that’s when Pitt is at his best. With nothing to hide behind, he becomes vulnerable and truly reveals himself. That’s exactly how we find him here. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will likely land Pitt an Oscar nod, but this is his best performance of the year, and possibly career. Tommy Lee Jones adds stellar, haunting supporting work, too, permeating the film’s whole fabric even though he’s rarely on-screen.

In regard to what is constantly on-screen, however, my goodness is it breathtaking.

A spectacular vision in every respect, Ad Astra is a pantheon sci-fi work. Its opening image feels like a  nod to 2001’s end, and everything that follows – captured by Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s cinematography (he of Interstellar fame) and manifest through Kevin Thompson‘s Production Design in concert with a team of skilled Art Directors and Sound Designers – is rendered on an epic canvas. It’s as grand and ambitious as space exploration itself, all elevated by Max Richter‘s brooding, soaring score. Suffice it to say: thank God Netflix didn’t get its grubby streaming hands on this one. See it in IMAX if you can and let it wash over you.

I’m unsure of the future, but I am not concerned,” Pitt’s McBride says in a moment of clarity. And in context, it’s more than just a sentiment of being content; for Roy, it’s a calming, transcendent revelation. Then, at film’s end, he punctuates his transformation with eight final words; a simple but comprehensive spiritual creed that, more and more, I hope to make my own.

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