It’s all too rare these days to find science-fiction movies that aren’t simply bombastic superhero flicks or alien-invasion thrillers. The current Brad Pitt film Ad Astra bravely breaks that mold, offering up a meditative yet mesmerizing tale of an astronaut who embarks on a daring and highly dangerous quest to retrieve his gone-rogue, fellow-astronaut father from the deepest reaches of the solar system.
That description might sound intriguing enough, but where the film really shines is in the surprising fact that this search explores the concept of the sins of the father coming to haunt the son. The film hinges largely on Pitt’s multilayered, Oscar-worthy performance as his character, Roy McBride, finds his mission a largely solitary one, with the film relying upon his narration overlaying much of its stunning visuals.
The title Ad Astra is Latin for “to the stars,” and the film opens in a near future in which life on earth is being threatened by power surges emanating from the planet Neptune. NASA has come to believe that the source of the surges is the lead spacecraft of the Lima Mission, a giant expedition that launched 30 years before with the goal of finding conclusively whether extraterrestrial life exists on other planets of the solar system.
Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was the captain of that mission, and as a result disappeared from Roy’s life three decades ago. Roy was told that his father and his crew had all died as heroes, and found his motivation to be an astronaut himself in his father’s purported heroics.
NASA decides to send a team to find the Lima Mission near Neptune and to fire nuclear missiles into it in order to disable the electrical pulses it is sending to earth. Roy wants to be part of the crew, but he suddenly receives the shocking news from an insider that his father was in fact not a hero who had died all those years before, but in fact had gone dangerously rogue – causing his crew to die when they tried to mutiny and force a return to Earth.
NASA wants to ground him suddenly, but Roy executes a daring plan to get on board the rocket heading for his father and to see if he can find a more peaceful way of bringing his father to justice. What happens from there is utterly riveting for those willing to follow a hyper-intelligent film whose hook is found in engaging the mind far more than throttling the senses. At my screening, ten people walked out muttering about boredom, while the remaining fifty applauded heartily at its conclusion.
There are two comparisons I can make to best describe the feel of this unique film. It’s as if legendary yet often-obscure auteur Terence Malick (Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line) got his hands on $80 million and a script with a coherent plot, or like 2001: A Space Odyssey — if it had an ending that made sense.
Ad Astra is co-written and directed by James Gray, who makes a big-budget leap here after making nine other films that were critically acclaimed but overlooked at the box office (among them The Lost City of Z and four movies with Joaquin Phoenix). The film lures viewers in through a quietly pulsing, synth-driven score by Thomas Richter that feels both high-tech and warmly intimate at the same time, while facilitating the sort of prolonged concentration required to process it all.
There are several deep emotional and spiritual themes throughout the film, as a shocking turn of events lends Roy a sudden understanding of what his father went through in his crisis. That leads to some quietly powerful moments between Pitt and Jones, with the two tied by their failings yet trying to establish one last connection before it’s too late.
The story is very much like the parable of the Prodigal Son in reverse, as Roy the son seeks to welcome back his long-lost father Jones while having to face the question, “Is it too late?” Roy is also haunted by thoughts of the wife he left behind on Earth (Liv Tyler) and how his unceasing drive for perfection has caused a rift between them.
Ultimately, Ad Astra stands as my choice so far for the movie of the year. Packed with stunning visuals, driven by an enthralling plot, and with much to contemplate and ponder, I cannot recommend this rewarding film highly enough.
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