‘Ad Astra’ review: Brad Pitt takes on stumbling, skyrocketing space odyssey


Dark, moving, ridiculous and just shy of the sublime, James Gray’s speculative fiction “Ad Astra” opens with a vision of a man falling to Earth. He’s an astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), and he’s perched on an international space antenna – basically a ladder to very, very high elevation, with the world sprawling out like a vast blue-green carpet beneath him. It’s an incredibly serene and beautiful moment that is disrupted by a series of sudden explosions, as shockwaves surge through the antenna and send Roy down to what looks like almost certain disaster.

Miraculously, he survives the fall, thanks to a parachute and a knack for staying calm even in the most risky situations. In this, he resembles his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary space explorer who disappeared decades ago on Neptune. Now senior government officials are whispering that Clifford is alive, if not quite well: These electric storms, which are wreaking havoc around the world, appear to be coming from Neptune, and it’s likely Clifford is behind it all, demanding a strange sort of revenge on Earth and potentially the entire solar system.

It’s extremely ironic that Roy may have been put in a life and death situation by the same father who gave him the skills to survive it. As Roy tells us, in thick streams of voiceovers that suggest a Zen philosopher through a private film noir gaze, it is Clifford to whom he owes his strong work ethic and love for travel in the world. space. He’s too in denial to point out that Clifford is also the reason he’s so emotionally estranged from the rest of humanity, played by an ex-wife briefly seen and even more briefly heard (Liv Tyler, in an ungrateful role) .

The extent to which our parents shape us, for better and inevitably for worse, is at the heart of “Ad Astra”. Written by Gray and Ethan Gross, it’s a moody and sad tale of fathers and sons that, like much of Hollywood’s ambitious sci-fi, balances a grueling trip to another world and a more interior psychological journey.

Roy’s superiors believe that hearing of a long-lost son might be enough to sway Clifford’s conscience. And so, with the early help of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), a former colleague of his father, Roy sets out to deliver a message to Neptune, a top-secret mission that will take him to the moon, to Mars and beyond. . As “Ad Astra” follows Roy to the far reaches of the solar system, blazing a trail that superficially recalls the arc of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he becomes more and more resilient in his play with the genre, transforming into an action film. , a paranoid thriller and, finally, a serious hybrid of cosmic parable and male weeper.

Brad Pitt in the movie “Ad Astra”.

(Twentieth Century Fox)

Gray’s mastery of these tonal and narrative shifts is evidence of a sensibility steeped in classic cinematic entertainment and founded on the belief that even a meditative, quasi-Tarkovskian space opera should produce a good shake every now and then. There are a few decent ones here, starting with a lunar action sequence that raises a lot of moon dust and suspicion, and a grisly shock that nods very quickly in the direction of “Alien” and his ilk. .

Yet it is hard not to wish that these visceral fears were more sustained and determined, and that they were linked to a more coherent and rigorous vision of the future. It’s less about scientific precision – though I look forward to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s demystification of the asteroid surf scene – than imaginative detail.

One of the pleasures of Gray’s earlier, more earthly characteristics is the feeling that a very specific background – from the Russian mafia enclaves of “Little Odessa” and “We Own the Night” to the South American jungles of “The Lost City” of Z ”- took shape in the background. The fictional world of “Ad Astra”, on the other hand, emerges in pieces, never feeling fully formed or taking on an imaginative life of its own.

Kevin Thompson’s production design gives us gripping glimpses of an alternate future reality, sometimes tilting the film in the direction of satire. The moon has become a crudely commercialized dystopia surrounded by a desolate, pirate-overrun desert, while what we see from Mars is an underground military base outfitted with brightly colored, mood-changing rooms. You wonder how these visions came to be, and Gray’s patient, contemplative approach encourages that wonder. But the conceptual underpinnings are never addressed satisfactorily, but reduced to fragments of shorthand in Roy’s awkward and lengthy voiceover.

But if the world-building in “Ad Astra” leaves something to be desired – as does Ruth Negga’s underdeveloped role as Roy’s potential ally – perhaps it’s because the director’s investment here is more. emotional than intellectual. Where the image really comes together is in the home stretch, in which Gray allows the sad grandiosity of his vision to blossom without excuses (a development taken up by Max Richter’s beautiful score, which goes from “Tron” type electronics to more classic strings.).

There is something absurd and heartbreaking about the idea of ​​a man saving the universe by traveling billions of miles to find the father who abandoned him.

There is something absurd and heartbreaking about the idea of ​​a man saving the universe by traveling billions of miles to find the father who abandoned him and his mother three decades ago, and it is more to the credit of this film than to its detriment that it shows itself ready to risk our ridicule. This isn’t the first time, of course, that Hollywood has used the space thriller as a smokescreen to explore Daddy’s deeper issues, most recently Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”.

This image, like this one, was taken by the brilliant cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and it too was based on a grave doomsday threat. But Nolan’s film notably flirted with the possible existence of benevolent entities, spreading a message of hope and salvation across time and space to our humble and inglorious species. None of these entities are supposed to exist in “Ad Astra”, which postulates, with more pessimism than comfort, a universe in which no higher consciousness exists and humanity is indeed alone.

Roy’s father has done his life’s work to find other intelligent life forms, and Jones’ sad and disturbing performance, largely conveyed through old video footage recorded before Clifford’s disappearance, shows us a man gripped by a dangerous and ultimately futile obsession. . And Pitt’s increasingly wetter turn, alternately steep and sensitive, is a fascinating study of alienation; it shows how Roy both idealized and internalized his father’s neglect, turning “Ad Astra” into a psychodrama of impacted masculinity and fatherly conflict.

Some might well see echoes of “Apocalypse Now”, with Roy playing Captain Willard to Clifford’s Colonel Kurtz. Others may remember “The Lost City of Z,” a more richly realized story of a father and son exploring an uncharted frontier, and also a more complex and empathetic portrayal of a woman’s emotional abandonment. I couldn’t help but guess (so to speak) a religious dimension to this otherwise secular parable: from that initial fall from heaven, Roy could well be a figure of Christ interceding on behalf of a fallen species, desperately trying to write a New Testament in which Earth and its citizens survive.

A movie that can support this particular reading is nothing to scoff at. And in an age of blockbusters to think that adults themselves are on the verge of extinction, it’s hard not to appreciate the unusual rhythms and nuances Gray brings to this story, or his constant skill in finding his own secular themes in the material. But it’s also hard not to think that he found these themes a bit too easily, imposing an orderly dramatic order on a subject who resists easy colonization or classification. You leave “Ad Astra” dazzled and bewildered, moved and frustrated, and perhaps wishing its creator had dismissed his own concerns and plunged deeper and deeper into the void.

‘Ad Astra’

Note: PG-13, for violence and bloody images, and for a brief strong language

Execution time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Playing: Open on September 20 in general version

‘Ad Astra’

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