AD ASTRA review by Mark Walters – Brad Pitt solves a mystery of Tommy Lee Jones’ interstellar history

AD ASTRA review by Mark Walters – Brad Pitt solves a mystery of Tommy Lee Jones’ interstellar history

Brad Pitt just recently appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio and an impressive ensemble. But it’s not often he headlines a film these days and carries the majority of the weight on his shoulders, which makes the new James Gray (THE IMMIGRANT, THE LOST CITY OF Z) film AD ASTRA that much more intriguing. Couple that with the fact the film reportedly took two whole years just to perfect the special effects, and you have what feels on the surface like a must-see movie.

The story, which is set in the “near future”, opens with astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) attempting to fix a giant space antenna protruding from the earth, and thanks to an unexpected electrical storm the antenna is nearly destroyed and several fellow astronauts fall to their deaths… but Roy is unique in that he always manages to remain calm and composed, even in the midst of the most stressful and dangerous situations. He survives, and is then told by Space Com (the film’s variation on NASA) that there is news about his missing father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who was thought to be permanently missing after a failed mission to Neptune in an effort to communicate with extra-terrestrial life. They believe he may in fact still be alive, that the sudden electrical storms may actually be related to his mission, and they want Roy to attempt to communicate with him. This begins an interstellar journey which will take the disconnected son from the earth to our moon, and eventually to Mars, where they may be able to make contact. But as Roy digs deeper into the mystery of his father’s mission, he finds out there are some dark secrets that even he may not be mentally prepared for.

While there are certain similarities between AD ASTRA and notable sci-fi films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the more recent INTERSTELLAR, the biggest difference here is tone. Those other films provided scientific takes on space travel and more realistically grounded stories at their core, but still delivered elements of the fantastical and potentially awesome aspects of space. AD ASTRA is not that, it is a cold look at the bleakness of space exploration, and the darker dangers within. Certain scenes like a trip to the moon hold surprises like moon pirates brutally attacking and killing the explorers for their resources… almost like a commentary on how the dangers of earthbound third world countries would still be prevalent once we colonize other planets, that we can never escape the brutality of man no matter what the location. There’s also the not-so-subtle commentary on how the powers that be will sometimes make a catastrophe a cause to label someone a hero, as to spin the news more positively for those not in the know. It’s a very serious and sometimes depressing look at what many consider to be an exciting idea. I found this to be a somewhat refreshing take on the Sci-Fi genre, though I predict many audiences will likely hate it, as it’s not a typical Hollywood space adventure in any way.

As for the aforementioned special effects, they are rather amazing and sometimes in subtle ways. It’s easy to get lost in the visuals and see only what the filmmakers intended, as many of the shots are so seamlessly and masterfully done, it’s almost documentary-like. Director James Gray frames the action in a haunting and immersive way that transports the viewer into this journey full force. In many scenes I had to remind myself that what I was seeing was not real, or significantly enhanced with visual effects, as the shots were just so darn good. Pitt does a fine job playing the distant astronaut from a troubled childhood, so disenchanted emotionally that he can’t even hold together his marriage to Eve (a VERY brief performance from Liv Tyler). It’s definitely not one of Pitt’s more likable roles, but he does it quite well despite that. Tommy Lee Jones isn’t in the movie much, and most of his character moments are intentionally mysterious until some bigger reveals in the end. I like seeing Jones in movies, and I appreciated the inspired casting of him here, but again, his character is played intentionally aloof and cold – like father like son. Donald Sutherland has a small role as a former friend of Roy’s father, and even joins Roy during his trip to the moon, but doesn’t stick around long enough to become more than a nice familiar face for the big screen – side note, you have to appreciate that both Sutherland and Jones are in this film, as it’s a sort of SPACE COWBOYS reunion, even if they don’t share any scenes together.

AD ASTRA is not a fun or even very “satisfying” movie, but as a visual spectacle it is quite impressive. This is a space movie for scientific minds who just want something that feels real. General audiences will likely not take to the story or the characters, and will leave feeling disappointed, but Gray isn’t a popcorn filmmaker by any stretch anyway. Personally, I admire 20th Century Fox going all in on a more grounded Sci-Fi movie like this, and delivering something that doesn’t feel like more of what we’ve seen time and time again. This is one of those films I would definitely recommend if only for its technical merits, but have no strong interest to revisit anytime soon, so take of that what you will. That said, if you like NASA documentaries that show space for what it really is, this will make you feel right at home.

AD ASTRA opens September 20, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.