Ad Astra

James Gray's space odyssey Ad Astra begins with one free fall and ends with another. The first one see's Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) just barely survive a catastrophic accident on a massive space antenna caused by a freak storm surge. Shortly after the stoic astronaut is informed by higher-ups the source of the mysterious power surges may be linked to the doomed final mission of his long-missing father, legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). That mission, dubbed "The Lima Project", began over twenty-five years ago and spanned the farthest reaches of the solar system in what was the most advanced search for higher intelligence in human history, although both Clifford and his team have been M.I.A for sixteen years. With recently discovered intel suggesting Clifford may in fact still be alive and that the Lima Project could be causing the storm surges which threaten the solar system, the prodigal son McBride sets out on a harrowing journey of self-discovery that leads him into the deepest and darkest recesses of both outer (and perhaps inner) space as he races to find his father and uncover the truth behind the Lima Project before time runs out.

If that sounds like a fairly straightforward premise for the kind of crowd-pleasing space opera one might expect from a major studio starring one of Hollywood's most popular movie stars, rest assured that Ad Astra is anything but a conventional sci-fi yarn. This might be why the film has provoked polarizing reactions from some viewers since it premiered to generally glowing reviews at the Venice Film Festival. The philosophical nature of the film and what some may perceive as a cold, clinical approach to human drama won't surprise viewers who have been following the career of James Gray, whose previous features (such diverse efforts as We Own the Night, Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z) were all, in various ways, greatly indebted to New Hollywood Cinema as well as European art house films of the 60s and 70s. And yet, Ad Astra is both his most ambitious and commercial effort yet, as the writer-director seems to be channeling the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) while working on a big-budget blockbuster canvas not unlike his contemporary Christopher Nolan (Interstellar). The end result is a visually stunning and deeply emotional story about a son searching for his father that also doubles as a thought-provoking parable about mankind's attempts to understand the language of God.

Despite the heady themes that's not to say Ad Astra doesn't offer plenty of thrills and big screen spectacle for audiences looking for such pleasures. As a director Gray has always excelled at crafting edge-of-your-seat set pieces (See the William Friedkin-inspired rain-drenched car chase in We Own the Night for proof) and Ad Astra delivers them in spades. From a gut-wrenching action sequence involving space pirates on the lunar surface of the moon to a chilling zero gravity encounter with bloodthirsty apes, Ad Astra finds Gray in full command of his cinematic powers. Gray has said in press materials he strived with Ad Astra to set a new benchmark standard in capturing the beauty and terror of space travel in a similarly realistic fashion as Kubrick's 2001, but crucially the extraordinary visual effects never eclipse the human story or the many rich themes Gray and screenwriter Ethan Gross wrestle with. In fact, one of the most rewarding things about Ad Astra is how the screenplay turns genre conventions on its ear as the story progresses, and McBride evolves from a fairly traditional protagonist into a much more morally ambiguous man haunted by past failures while chasing his own obsessions into a void he may never emerge from. This schism is also reflected in the film's visual style, as Intersellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's splendid compositions grow more claustrophobic (perhaps even alien) as dark reds and deep blues come to dominate the picture in the latter half. The downward spiral McBride skirts is a path he comes to learn his father knew all too well, as the old cliche about "The sins of the father..." begins to prove true in the film's elusive second half.

But I don't want to risk giving away the many surprises Ad Astra has in store for viewers any more than I already have. If Gray's technical mastery and earnestness as a storyteller give Ad Astra its brain, the lead performance of Brad Pitt (who also served as producer) gives the film its soul. An actor who has long been famous both on-screen and behind the scenes for his good looks and the public's fascination with his celebrity, the 55-year-old veteran actor displays remarkable new depths as a performer (both in spite of or perhaps because of his real-life battles with personal demons and substance abuse.) He creates in McBride a fully-dimensional, tortured individual whose every action feels as belabored as Cliff Booth's in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were carefree and unburdened. In that film Pitt found himself inadvertently preventing an infamous Hollywood tragedy, but here he literally carries the weight of humanity on his shoulders, and his portrayal of a deeply conflicted, wounded soul doing everything he can to maintain his composure despite enormous pressure both internal and external is a tour de force. Suffice to say a lot of complex and sometimes contradictory emotions emerge from his first-person narration during the two hour runtime. Among them are memories of his ex-wive (Liv Tyler) whose deep feelings for he can't let go of despite his best efforts and shortcomings as a husband. As Ad Astra shows the life of an astronaut is one filled with danger and solitude at every turn, while hanging onto earthbound connections can only serve to cloud one's judgment. And yet, it's also this capacity for emotional feeling, the film suggests, which is what makes us uniquely human, and thus those connections are worth preserving even as we reach beyond the stars for transcendence. It was this desire to forgo the material world and play God that led to Clifford abandoning his son in a mad quest to become the higher power he was searching for. "He could only see what was not there, while missing what was right in front of him." In the end, Ad Astra is a quietly devastating film that offers an unflinching look at the meaninglessness of human life in the grand scheme of the cosmos and its maddening effect on the soul, but in its final passages one is nonetheless left with a glimmer of hope. "I will live, and I will love", McBride muses.

Amen.

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