Film review: Ad Astra

Monday 23 September 2019

Peter W. Sheehan, ACBC
Starring: Brad Pitt, and Tommy Lee Jones. Also, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland. Directed by James Gray. Rated M (Science fiction themes, violence and coarse language). 123 min.

This American science-fiction, futuristic drama tells the story of an astronaut who ventures into space in search of his long lost father. The title “Ad Astra” refers to a Latin phrase, meaning “To the Stars”. The film asks the viewer to focus on an extraterrestrial journey to outer space, and opens by informing the viewer it is the time of “the Near Future (and) of both hope and conflict”.

In the film, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who has “a self-destructive side” to his personality, travels through space to the edges of the solar system to try to find his missing father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). What has happened to his father represents a mystery that threatens humans back on Earth. Roy hardly knows his father, and is seeking to unravel the explanation of why cosmic rays are emanating from outer space. Power surges caused by the rays are of an “unstoppable nature”, and impossible to control.

Roy’s father was once a celebrated astronaut, who, 30 years earlier, led Earth’s first voyage into deep space. Sixteen years into the mission, his father’s spaceship, and everyone on it, disappeared, and his father has never been heard from since. The destructive power surges are continuing, however, and threaten life on Earth. The surges are coming from Neptune, and Roy believes his father is on Neptune, and could be responsible for the crisis.

In this outer-space movie, both adventure and human tensions escalate together and converge. The US Space Command agency on Earth wants to terminate the command of Roy’s father, but doesn't know whether, or not, his father died years before. Roy is asked to put its messages out into the solar system for his father to respond to. Space Command assumes if that happens, Roy’s father is still alive. The movie operates at two levels - at the action-adventure level, and at a human-personal level.

At the level of action-adventure, the film is somber, grim, natural, and realistic, and offers slow-burn, engrossing entertainment. It communicates space adventure brilliantly, and the movie begins with a dazzling action sequence about what surges in the solar system are doing to unsuspecting humans. The solar system that Roy is asked to explore is unforgiving, and the space expedition by Roy’s father was inevitably doomed. To get to Neptune and his father, Roy has to stop on the way at a series of manned way-stations that provide the film’s main action scenarios. Adventure-action is supplied by man-eating predators on an abandoned spaceship; a frantic car chase across a lunar landscape to lay claim to needed resources on the moon; a shoot-out on board the spaceship; and sundry (problematic) spaceship landings.

At the human-personal level, the film explores in-depth the nature of the bond between father and son. Brad Pitt impressively delivers a laid-back performance as the conflicted son. The film, while challenging the mind also aims to stimulate the senses, and it succeeds in doing so. This level has its melodramatic moments, but for the most part, its impact is emotionally very strong. Brad Pitt is compellingly introspective as the son, and he plumbs the dark nature of his psyche to try to resolve the damage that he knows his father has caused. The film itself is highly ambitious in its emotional thrust - Roy’s father has left him for a long time; Roy’s hurt is painfully ingrained; and the movie presents both Roy and Clifford as the tragic result of lost parental love.

The ship’s exploration of space is visually spectacular, and the quality of the movie’s production design, its slow-motion photography, and the creative nature of its visual effects put the film in potential Oscar territory. This is a science-fiction movie that is action-oriented, and loaded with effects. It asks the viewer to thoughtfully ponder the issues it raises, especially those relating to human survival and conflicted relationships. And all along the way, it intriguingly projects the existential challenge of solar travel, and what such travel might mean for humankind in the future.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Released September 19, 2019
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