Saturday, September 21, 2019

Ad Astra


This intimate and lingering space drama begins with thrilling words for science fiction fans: "In the near future." We follow the endeavors of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) astronaut, and son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) as he does his duty, always steady, calm, and sure. Through a vaguely noir-like narration of inner dialogue, he tells us that his persona of contentment is a farce; he is frustrated, unfulfilled and despondent. He needs purpose.

Written and directed by James Grey, with Ethan Gross as a co-writer.

Then dangerous waves of energy begin to hit Earth from the direction of Neptune. 40 years ago, Roy's father was on mission there, directed to scan the distant galaxies for signs of intelligent life. But communication was lost and the crew presumed dead after 10 years. Now the high ups believe McBride may still be alive, and they task Roy with getting a message to him. To do that he must travel to the Mars outpost via the Moon, and the journey promises danger and hardships. That, Roy can handle. His dad being alive? He's not so sure.

The first big clue that I was in for a treat with this film was when the high ups are instructing Roy on his mission and they say that to avoid suspicion (yes, it's a secret mission) he will fly commercially to the Moon. As a tourist. As you do. Once there, Moon Pirates are involved in a chase over the Moon's surface. It's beautiful, it's thrilling, it's all I could have hoped for. And through it all Roy remains the focus as a fascinating character. He has a reputation for calm; his heart rate never rises over 80 BPM, even in intense, life-threatening situations, but a breaking point is on the horizon which he's speeding toward.

Space films need to get on board with this direction; I would've watched an entire film about Moon Pirates. 

For once my being a science fiction fan backfired on me, because I noticed occasional holes in the space aspects. That's something that ruins movies like Gravity for me, but in this case, I tend not to care. The difference? Ad Astra never claims perfect logic or sound astrodynamics as Gravity did. The focus is on Roy, his quest, the people and challenges he meets, the cold beauty that surrounds him, and the mystery of what he will find; the fact that most of it is accurate and scientifically sound is a bonus. The movie is much more interested in being honest in the abstract, than by-the-rules in the physical. If the priorities are defined, which they are, it's easy to suspend disbelief as needed.

In tone and pacing, it begs comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey more than anything else, with more modern sensibilities and tighter action sequences. And one huge difference: it looks at humanity in an intimate way. Instead of focusing on lofty speculation, it drives itself far out into the dim and menacing reaches of space, then turns around and looks fondly back on the Earth and the individuals who populate it; stretching eagerly towards the heavens only to find there a deeper love and appreciation for what it dreams of leaving behind. That is exemplary of what I love about science fiction and space exploration in film.

The heart of the most pure science fiction is still a human one.

It starts with a small and simple but potent idea, and through the lens of the genre, magnifies it until it feels a big as the universe itself. That is the purpose of the science fiction genre, if there ever was one. Nothing else can take truths and expand them so far without bending them out of shape. And this movie does it so confidently. The idea is simple, and the execution smart, and everything the movie does points to it. When Roy meets the Director of Operations on Mars, (Ruth Negga in a brief but dense part) she muses about how she visited Earth once. What would that mean to someone not born there, the movie wonders. How would it impact them?

It also shows us characters who juxtapose with Roy. Donald Sutherland is a man whose physical weakness holds him back; and Loren Dean is a man whose mental weakness does the same. Loren Dean must love space movies. He's been in four, including playing NASA hero John Aaron in Apollo 13. He's like an Easter Egg for dedicated fans. Liv Tyler has a small role, and Tommy Lee Jones' performance was scary-good, but Brad Pitt is understandably the best of the lot. Though Roy is reserved, Pitt's performance ensures that it's never hard to understand him underneath it all. To the point where the narration feels nearly redundant. It's still useful though, to maintain a constant style and to delve deeper than facial tics and minute expressions are capable.

The only thing better than the performance of this stoic and complex character, is the character itself. 

As a fan, I don't much care that there are technical flaws here. But as a critic, I must admit they are there, detracting from the film. Whether those flaws impact enjoyment will depend on the viewer; as for me, the more I muse on the deep and meaningful beauty of the work, the less significant those little slip-ups seem. What I'm left with is a film I love as if it were flawless, while fully aware that there were a few things about it that passingly bothered me. A second view may see those things continue to dissipate, or perhaps make a resurgence. I am unsure which the future holds, but I can't wait to find out.

I'm already eager to see those gorgeously rendered space scenes and extraterrestrial lands again. To follow Roy on his strange journey again -- closer this time -- and to weigh every nuance as it passes by in its striking muted beauty. With all that adventurous and intimidating wonder, the quiet, regal honesty of the central performance, and the intimate story that is wrapped around it so tenderly, Ad Astra barely lifts a finger before it achieves heights worthy of its name.

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