Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Director: James Gray
Running Length: 122 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It’s well-documented (on this site) that I’m a sucker for any film set in space so it was probably always a given that Ad Astra was going to rank high with me. Unless it was just a film where Brad Pitt watched Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy on the International Space Station for two hours, chances are I’d find something to like about it. Thankfully, this features no McCarthy stinker but is instead a James Gray directed thinker and it is a wonder to see and feel. With an excellent production design and stellar technical features across the board, Ad Astra might not be exactly the pulse-pounding action film advertised in trailers but it’s a worthwhile excursion into deep space with an A-list movie star continuing a 2019 winning streak.
Years into the future we’ve made advancements in our space exploration. We have colonized the moon and have ventured further into our solar system, establishing an outpost on Mars and sending manned expeditions to look for intelligent life in distant galaxies. It was on one of these expeditions that H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman) went missing on his way to Neptune. Sixteen years later, a series of solar flares are threatening Earth and grow more dangerous with each passing day. Scientists have pinned the source of these anomalies emanating several light years away. From an insolvent spaceship long thought lost. Near Neptune.
That’s when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, The Big Short) is brought in. A decorated astronaut known for his calm demeanor even in the most stressful of circumstances (his heart rate never goes above 80, even when involved in a catastrophic event), he’s the only son of Clifford McBride and hasn’t quite gotten over the absence of his father during his formative years. Though he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, he can’t get out of his shaow. Now, with new intelligence gathered, the military has evidence that Roy’s father might not be as missing in the line of duty as they once thought. Hoping to stave off the global event on the horizon, the military asks Roy to venture to the ends of the galaxy to locate his father and stop him from plunging the Earth into ruin. Along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games), an old friend of his father’s, Roy first travels to the Moon, then Mars, and then…well, you’ll see.
Director James Gray has had an interesting career up until this point. Starting out with five very New York-centric films that feel, to me, very similar, he hit upon something truly wonderful in 2016 when he adapted the bestselling novel The Lost City of Z. The trouble is, Amazon Studios who did not quite know how to release it correctly, distributed it and it unfortunately was lost in the rubble. Three years later Ad Astra almost suffered a similar fate when it was caught in the crossfire after Disney bought 20th Century Fox and moved around its release date. Thankfully, the studio heads at Disney stuck with their plans to release it and even if they’ve still slightly bungled the marketing of the film they have given it a decent sized push.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say Ad Astra is more heady drama than sci-fi action film like Gravity or The Martian. It’s more cerebral than anything else and at 122 minutes doesn’t mind taking its time to get to the point. Taking a cue from Kubrick, Gray isn’t above letting the audience make up their own minds about plot developments and meanings behind what goes on the further Pitt’s character travels toward his long-delayed reunion with his dad. I’m sure they’ll be a lot of analysis as to the psyche behind Roy, the distance he travels, and the outcome of it all but it’s best to go in knowing the film isn’t all action.
Not that Gray doesn’t feature several impressive sequences of thrill along the way because he sure does. From a cat-and-mouse chase played in fraught silence on a lunar surface to a recon mission that takes a freakish turn, Gray surprised me at the lengths he was willing to go to keep Roy and the audience off balance. On the other hand, there are a few moments that could be tightened up a bit; shoring up some of the more protracted passages would help us arrive at the final act a hair more alert. Though it may be traveling further into slightly more spoiler-y territory, I was disappointed to see Ruth Negga (World War Z) and Liv Tyler (Robot & Frank) not utilized more in their tangential roles. Negga’s character, especially, seems like there was something left on the cutting room floor.
Like the aforementioned Gravity and The Martian, the movie fires on all cylinders when its just the audience and the star and Pitt is more than enough to hold our interest. Coming off the rousing success of July’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (which will most likely garner him another Oscar nomination and likely win), Pitt has come back this year in a big way. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him a double nominee at the end of the year, being recognized for his work here would be rewarding another side to his acting that we don’t get to see that often. While Pitt has played drama before, he’s never been as focused or introspective as he is here. There’s a lot going on and Pitt handles it all with a master’s touch.
Looking back now, it likely was a wise move by Disney to reposition Ad Astra out of the summer movie season and get it into theaters after the heat died down. Now, it doesn’t have the weight of “summer blockbuster” to live up to or, looked at another way, live down. Now, the movie can be looked at for the drama it really is at its core. The visual effects and production design could get some awards love and, while the movie may alienate some, I found a lot to take away from Gray’s familial space drama and Pitt’s, ahem, stellar performance.