25 Sep 2019

Review - Ad Astra

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 25 September 2019

Ad Astra sees an astronaut going in search of his long-missing father. It stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland.

The setup of Ad Astra seems, at first view, very similar to the recent High life – not only a small crew in a space ship on the outer reaches of the solar system, but a certain dry, unsensational tone – to start with at any rate.

But director James Gray’s film is a sci-fi call-back to his last film The Lost City of Z, a real-life story of a man seeking a mythical lost city in the heart of the Amazon jungle.

In Ad Astra, the explorer is Dr Clifford McBride, missing for years among the outer planets.

And McBride’s son Roy – Brad Pitt – has been inspired all his life by his heroic father. He’s now an astronaut, risking his life maintaining a giant radio antenna that scans the heavens looking for intelligent life.

There’s a sudden, dramatic electrical surge that briefly affects the entire planet. Major Roy McBride is summoned by the military top brass and given some surprising news.

“Your father was experimenting with some highly classified material that could threaten our entire solar system. All life would be destroyed. We’re counting on you to find out what’s happening out there,” a general in the space commanders warns Roy.

It seems that reports of Dad’s death may have been exaggerated, and Roy is put on a secret mission – to go first to the moon then to Mars, and finally on the last leg to Neptune, where his father was last seen.

These trips seem comparatively routine in the near future, but nothing is quite what it appears. 

On the Moon, where Roy is accompanied by a friend of his father – a mysterious Donald Sutherland - there are bandit predators picking on unsuspecting visitors.

“We’ve been having trouble with pirates since September, some countries have been giving them safe haven, they’ll take hostages or go for our rovers. It’s like the wild west out there,” Lieutenant Levant tells Roy.

On Mars, Roy discovers forces determined to subvert his mission, and unexpected friends offering assistance. Many of these plot twists are unexplained, though multiple viewings might clarify some of them.

But the biggest obstacle to his mission might be his own personality. The loss of his father, while Roy was in his teens, clearly affected him, and the mission controllers regularly evaluate his mental state.

The question is, is Roy as calm and focused as he claims, or is he simply good at gaming the system?

Ad Astra tightens the screws once Roy and his crew get closer to journey’s end – the planet Neptune.

There are other space craft out there, though it’s dangerous work. The crew is sidetracked by a call for help – always a risky event in a sci-fi movie – and the results are shocking and unexpected.

All the time they get closer and closer to Neptune, and the possibility of contact with – with who? With alien intelligence? With Dad? All those photos and early film footage of Tommy Lee Jones are clearly leading somewhere. 

Has Dr McBride found his own equivalent of the Lost City of Z? Is he really the threat to the universe he’s being painted back on Earth?

Like most space-journey films, Ad Astra rests on one central character. There may be other actors – Jones, Sutherland, Liv Tyler – but they’re essentially cameos.

The spotlight is entirely on star Brad Pitt, who also produced the film. I like Brad Pitt, but he’s generally more comfortable in supporting roles rather than carrying the whole movie.

However, in an era of comic book fare and colourful alien invaders, it’s slightly reassuring to see a movie that offers intelligence and intriguing questions among the special effects.

Ad Astra’s not heading to ‘infinity and beyond’. It’s aiming at the stars, with a view to coming back.  A voyage worth taking.

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