Ad Astra makes for a curious companion piece to writer/director James Gray's previous film, The Lost City of Z (2017). Both films feature protagonists who are explorers, albeit in dramatically different historical periods: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), the main character in Ad Astra, is an astronaut in the near future, while James Hunnam's Percy Fawcett was a real-life explorer at the turn of the 20th century. Both men descend deep into the unknown, whether it be the vast reaches of space or the dense growth of the Amazonian jungle, to find something that may or may not be there. And, while both men are driven in their quests, they are distinctly different in their temperaments: Fawcett struggled to balance his insatiable urge to find a hidden city and his desire to be with his wife and children; Roy, on the other hand, is emotionally cut off from everyone around him, including his wife (Liv Tyler), who he leaves behind to journey into an unknown from which he might not return.
And that is precisely what makes Ad Astra so fascinating and potentially disturbing, especially for viewers who might be drawn to a genre film with a major star. Rarely does a big-budget Hollywood film center on a character as emotionally closed off as Pitt's, a man for whom human connection is a challenge. His world is largely interior, and the fact that we hear his inner monologue throughout much of the film provides us insight into his thoughts and feelings that his placid exterior rarely betrays. Pitt has always been an underappreciated actor because the perception of his movie star prowess often overshadows his wide range on the screen, and here he delivers one of his finest performances-a delicate balance that requires him to show very little while also generating both interest and empathy. Many of Pitt's most memorable performances have centered to some degree on their outlandishness (consider his Oscar-nominated turn as a deranged activist in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, his nihilistic Tyler Durden in David Fincher's Fight Club, or, more recently, his ultra-cool stuntman in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), but here it is quite the opposite: Pitt draws us in by putting up walls-walls that have cracks, mind you, but walls nonetheless.
The plot in Ad Astra revolves around a mission McBride is given to travel to the far edge of the solar system (the title is a Latin phrase meaning "to the stars") to determine the cause of mysterious power surges that are threatening the stability of Earth and all life on it. U.S. Space Command believes that the surges may be the result of the "Lima Project," which was launched decades early under the command of McBride's father (Tommy Lee Jones), who travelled as far as Neptune, but has not been heard from for 16 years. McBride had assumed that his father died on the mission, but Space Command officials believe that he may still be alive, floating in Neptune's orbit and continuing his experiments. McBride is given the mission of travelling to a base station on Mars to try to communicate with the Lima Project, which eventually leads to his travelling alone to Neptune's orbit to confront his father directly. There are all manner of obstacles to overcome along the way-not just physical dangers like scavenging pirates on the lunar surface and more shock waves that endanger the landing on Mars, but also the psychological toil of the isolation of prolonged space travel and the coldness he encounters when confronting the father he thought he lost years ago.
Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross structure the story around a number of large action setpieces, many of which are designed to demonstrate how unflappable McBride is-not in a simplistic, action hero kind of way, but rather as a man whose ability to feel has been muted. Much is made of how his pulse barely rises even when he's in mortal danger, and the film's real mission is to bring McBride out of his emotional paralysis and restore, in some way, a sense of faith and hope in humanity. Like a number of recent, thoughtful science fiction films, including Ex Machina (2015), Arrival (2016), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Ad Astra is decidedly more interested in its philosophical underpinnings than its excitable surface of danger and adventure. It is that most intriguing of science fiction epics, the kind that uses the vast reaches of space-that great, endless void of possibility and discovery-and uses it to turn us inward and remind us that what really matters is often what is right in front of us.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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