Four out of four stars
In recent interviews, director James Grey (“The Lost City of Z,” “Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) said he wanted “Ad Astra” to play out like an outer space take on “Heart of Darkness” – the masterpiece novella by Joseph Conrad on which the movie “Apocalypse Now” is based.
In tandem with co-writer Ethan Gross (TV’s “Fringe”), Grey has more than succeeded in his goal by making a science-fiction thriller where every event depicted is not only plausible but probable in humankind’s near future.
Sharing its title with the Latin phrase for “To the Stars,” “Ad Astra” is a sci-fi movie for people who not only love the genre but also those who avoid it like the plague. There is science but with none of the (mostly nonsensical) “inside baseball” jargon littering these types of films which prefer technique, special effects and explosions over masterful storytelling and raw human behavior. Mixing known science with primal and suppressed emotions is the plane where “Ad Astra” finds its groove and never strays.
The movie is highly derivative but in the best possible manner. Before finishing it not only recalls “Apocalypse Now” but also “The Martian, “Moon,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Solaris” among others. You could also toss “Interstellar” and “Gravity” into the mix — although little of what takes place in either of those movies is remotely believable.
After an establishing scene showing astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) performing a “Wichita Lineman” repair on a sky high antenna, he is approached by some higher-ups to go on a dangerous and covert solo mission. Roy is chosen not only because the job involves him trying to reel in his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who went rogue years ago, but also due to Roy’s detached and unflappable responses to pressure and danger. Even when falling from the sky his blood pressure barely rises above resting level — and he never gets emotional about anything. That is also major a sticking point in his marriage to Eve (the appropriately barely audible Liv Tyler).
Roy’s superiors believe recent destructive global power outages are due to Clifford (now living on the planet Neptune) and think the familial bond will convince him to return to Earth. Complying more out of duty than desire to reconnect with his father Roy accepts the task and heads to the moon with Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), a friend of Clifford’s since college. It is during this stretch of the story where the filmmakers find their sweetest of sweet spots.
Roy and Pruitt fly to the moon “commercial” on Virgin Atlantic Airlines for an undisclosed fare but that doesn’t include any extras, such as the rental of a pillow and a blanket ($225 thank you very much) paid for with a chip implanted in passengers’ wrists. When the men arrive they pass through a food court which includes a “Subway” and other familiar American branded establishments.
It looks like every other such generic location in every airport on the planet. You would think fast food on the moon might be done with more flair, but apparently not. It is subtle cinematic cynicism at its finest and piercing.
When it becomes clear Pruitt won’t be able to finish the mission, Roy proceeds to Mars alone where he is welcomed by an uncredited, gum-smacking Natasha Lyonne who is part Wal-Mart greeter and bureaucratic, Ellis Island rubber stamp office drone. Not long after completing his task, Roy realizes no one he’s interacted with thus far has been on the level and in his own low-key way he decides to rebel.
For the majority of his vastly underrated career, Pitt has been recognized more as a pretty boy “movie star” and prime fodder source for cheap tabloids than bona fide actor. That's in part because he recognizes his limitations and never takes on a role that is beyond his calling. At first blush, the Roy character is a typical Pitt role; understated and stoic, monotone and passive which isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Playing soft as opposed to leaning in to a role is far more difficult than it looks, which makes the transformation of Roy in the third act all the more jarring and impressive. Pitt is already showing up on many short lists for Best Actor Oscar consideration and a win would be fitting and not at all surprising.
Although well respected by his peers and the maker of high quality films, Grey has yet to craft a feature which has translated into awards or even average box office numbers. That will likely change with “Ad Astra.” His efforts here are easily as innovative as those of Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”), Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “The Martian”) and just maybe even Stanley Kubrick (“2001”).
Praise also needs to be lavished on cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Her,” “Dunkirk”) who crafts every frame of the film as if it were a framed still photo. His work on a chase scene on the moon involving Russian pirates (yes, Russian pirates) alone is worthy of Oscar consideration.
Don’t even consider waiting for this movie to come out on video before seeing it. No home theater in existence will remotely do it anything resembling justice. Seek out a venue showing it in Dolby Cinema no matter the cost or how far you need to travel. It will be well worth your time and money spent.