Ad Astra (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4) : To the stars (and his father)

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James Gray’s latest work “Ad Astra” is a slow, introspective science fiction drama austerely revolving around father and son issues from the beginning to the end. Although you may be quite disappointed if you expect something like “Gravity” (2013) or “Interstellar” (2014), the movie is a dry but interesting juxtaposition of personal drama and some awe-inspiring visual moments unfolded in the space, and I sort of admire that even though I observed its story and characters from the distance at times during my viewing.

Right from the beginning, the movie closely sticks to the viewpoint of its astronaut hero Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), and then we get a terrifying circumstance into which he is suddenly thrown while he is doing his work on a gigantic antenna protruding toward the space. Thanks to sheer luck as well as his exceptional fortitude against this extremely perilous situation, he eventually survives, but he does not seem to be quite affected by this incident, probably because he has accepted the risky aspects of his occupation for a long time.

As he admits to us via his narration, McBride has isolated and distanced himself from others around him as focusing more and more on his space work, and a few brief flashback scenes show us how he became estranged from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler). When she finally left him, he simply endured that without much emotional release, and that drove him further into work.

Above all, he has been always haunted by the legacy of his legendary father, who was the commander of an ambitious space program reaching to the outer rim of the Solar System. Many years ago, his father and several astronauts began their long, arduous journey to Neptune, but then they were gone missing for an unknown reason, and McBride has certainly tried very hard to live up to his father’s legacy.

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Not long after his fortunate survival, McBride is summoned by his superiors, and they tell him something quite unexpected. That dangerous accident and many other happenings on and around the Earth were caused by another big electromagnetic surge coming from Neptune, and it is quite possible that McBride’s father is still alive and also involved with this. Unless they do something to prevent next surges to come, the Earth and the human civilization will be doomed sooner or later, and McBride is ordered to go to Mars along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), who once worked with McBride’s father a long time ago.

What follows after that is something akin to the space version of that long, depressing journey depicted in Joseph Conrad’s “Hearts of Darkness”, and the movie gives us some engaging futuristic details to observe. We see McBride going through the quarantine procedure along with other passengers going to the Moon, and then we get a number of notable moments which will definitely take you back to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). In case of an expected tense action sequence, it is handled well with some restraint, and the movie certainly reminds us that no one can hear you in the space.

Anyway, McBride comes to leave for Mars without Pruitt, who reveals something important about McBride’s father shortly before being taken back to the Earth. It looks like McBride’s father made a certain drastic choice as being obsessed with his mission, and that awakens McBride’s suppressed feelings toward his father around the time when he arrives in the underground base in Mars. He has aspired to escape his father’s shadow while also distancing himself as much as he can from his father, but he is reminded more of how he is not so different form his father – especially when he later decides to go further than what he is allowed to do in his ongoing mission.

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Around that narrative point, the screenplay by Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross plunges its hero further into darkness as required, and we accordingly become more distant to what is happening on the screen, but the movie keeps holding our attention thanks to the good understated performance from Brad Pitt, which deserves to be compared to Ryan Gosling’s equally stoic performance in “First Man” (2018). Although McBride is a rather colorless Caucasian male archetype, Pitt steadily carries the film with his own star presence, and that is why the movie works to some degree despite being occasionally a bit too blatant and ponderous in the handling of its hero’s emotional issues.

Many of other main cast members of the film are relatively under-utilized. While Liv Tyler is stuck in her thankless role, Ruth Negga manages to leave some impression as a small but substantial supporting character later in the story, and Donald Sutherland is reliable as usual even though he does not have much to do on the whole. As the character equivalent to Colonel Kurtz in “Hearts of Darkness”, Tommy Lee Jones is surely well-cast, and he wisely underplays during his few scenes with Pitt.

In conclusion, “Ad Astra”, which means ‘to the stars’ in Latin, is not exactly entertaining, but it is worthwhile to watch for its mood and style, and the overall result is as admirable and intriguing as Claire Denis’ “High Life” (2018), another notable space drama of this year. Although I am not as enthusiastic about it as others, I am glad that I watched it on the big screen, and you may also enjoy it if you are aware of what it intends to do in advance.

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