Ad Astra

2019-09-20 09:34
 
Brad Pitt in 'Ad Astra.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

In the not-too-distant future, astronaut Major Roy McBride is called up for a most unlikely mission. An antimatter experiment happening at the edge of the solar system is causing a chain reaction that should it continue unabated may well mean the destruction of Earth and every other planet surrounding our sun. The only way to stop it is to reach the scientist conducting the experiment, which would involve sending a laser-message to him from Mars. McBride is the most obvious man for the job. Not only is he an exceptional and fearless astronaut but the scientist in question happens to be a pioneering hero of space travel and a man he thought long dead: his own father, Clifford McBride.      

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

2019 has proven to be a hell of a year for Brad Pitt. After years of barely ever appearing on-screen (Allied in 2016 was his most recent major cinematic release), he has received almost universal acclaim for two major roles in two major feature films within two months of each other. He easily stole the show from a cast of A-list actors as the most badass stuntman ever in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood but in Ad Astra he is no one’s supporting man, appearing in (unless I’m very much mistaken and I don’t believe I am) every single scene in this two-hour-long space-epic.

His role as haunted astronaut, Roy McBride, though, could hardly be further away from the uber-cool and confident character he played in Once Upon a Time (though both characters are notable for their fearlessness) and Ad Astra itself is almost the polar opposite of Tarantino’s terrifically entertaining but frequently indulgent tribute to ‘60s Hollywood and the most famous victim of the Manson Family, Sharon Tate. Pitt’s performance here is extremely subtle and reserved, but it’s no less impressive for it – any more than Ad Astra itself is any less impressive for being, effectively, Apocalypse Now in space with daddy issues. 

That might sound reductive and dismissive of the exceptional work that director and co-writer (with frequent collaborator, Ethan Gross), James Gray, does here but it does actually give you a flavour of the film – especially if Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut is still fresh on your mind from its recent re-release. It’s a glacially slow, meandering trip across the solar system, complete with a poetic voice over, plenty of self-reflection and more than its fair share of madness. It doesn’t come anywhere near the level of fever-dream-like insanity of either of the longer cuts of Apocalypse Now, to be sure, but the thing that really distinguishes it from Francis Ford Coppola’s made masterpiece isn’t so much its space setting – which is actually a lot less wild and surreal than the Vietnam of Apocalypse Now – but the themes that it is most interested in exploring.

If Apocalypse Now was all about a slow descent into darkness then Ad Astra (taken from the famous Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra”, meaning “through hardship to the stars) is a much more existential film revolving around the perennial theme of how children inevitably carry the burdens of their parents. While both Colonel Kurtz and Clifford McBride are decorated heroes who may or may not have gone insane, there is both compassion and a personal element in Roy’s quest that was obviously nowhere to be found in Captain Willard’s.

Despite being an (off)world-trotting adventure and even with its alternately awe-inspiring and nerve-racking depiction of space travel (so gorgeously shot by the fantastically named veteran cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema), it’s an extremely intimate drama revolving around the internal strife of a single character. While the plot itself deals with the literal extinction of all life in the solar system, it is far less that form of existentialism that it’s interested in exploring than in the way that emotional and literal distance between him and his father shaped Roy McBride into the fearless (his heart rate literally never spikes above “resting” even when staring death in the face) but emotionally repressed adult that he was to become.               

If the many, many insufferable Apocalypse Now comparisons didn’t already make this clear, Ad Astra ain’t exactly Star Wars. Many will undoubtedly find it extremely boring while others will condemn it for committing that most cardinal of sins: being pretentious. Despite my own admiration for the film and however much I was swept away by it (without ever quite unreservedly loving it), I do understand this completely.

This is science fiction in the grand tradition of the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact and Interstellar. It’s slow-burning “hard” science fiction with a strong philosophical undercurrent, deliberate pacing and an undeniable self-seriousness that can turn many a viewer off. It’s not for nothing, after all, that all of these films have been and still are highly divisive. There’s a Facebook movie-discussion group to which I belong (I’ll give you a hint: it’s for one of the better-known film mags out there) that has outright banned even the mention of Interstellar – albeit only half-seriously – for the tiresome and heated arguments that always, always, always occur as a result. No doubt it’s not going to be long before Ad Astra joins its ranks. 

This isn’t for everyone, basically, but it would undoubtedly be a far lesser film if it was.


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