Ad Astra shoots for stars much closer to home

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Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Those who marveled at Christopher Nolan’s journey through space, “Interstellar,” or have been fascinated by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey,” have undoubtedly been excitedly awaiting writer/director James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”

Starring Brad Pitt in his most subtle and demanding role for some time, “Ad Astra” follows Pitt’s character Roy McBride in the not too distant future as an astronaut who, after witnessing major power surges caused by an irregular antimatter pulse, is sent off on a journey of self-discovery. 

Tommy Lee Jones plays Roy’s father, who went missing some decades earlier during a search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. 

However, as Roy soon discovers, these antimatter pulses appear to come from his father’s old space station orbiting Neptune. He struggles with the possibility of his father being alive after all these decades alone and begins to learn that his parent might not have been the hero that everyone has made him out to be. 

“Ad Astra” is one of the most beautiful attempts ever to show a space quest on film. The cinematography is stunning, and the effects work is impeccable. Gray combines the best parts of Kubrick’s style and Nolan’s discipline in his direction, lingering in all the right moments just long enough for the intricacy of the space spectacle to be grasped, without visually drowning or boring, the audience. 

This film is much more grounded than most space quests, pun intended. Aside from the story taking place within our own solar system, the narrative’s momentum is very familiar to the audience — the love of a son for his father, and why, no matter how hard he might try, he can never totally separate himself from his dad. 

That said, this film follows the long and proud tradition of space quest movies with incredibly slow pacing. If you do not go into this film prepared to search for meaning in some long and quiet scenes, you will certainly be bored. 

However, that is more of a sin of the viewer than of the film, in my opinion.

Aside from some slow pacing in the movie, the transition from the second act into the third act is a bit jagged and forced, disrupting the soulful cadence of the narrative progression that had been previously established.

Few actors could pull off Pitt’s compelling performance in this film. His character is certainly a “strong and silent” type. Most of Pitt’s character work comes in how he holds himself, how he reacts to others and how much attentive control he clearly has over his movements. 

Both the writing for Pitt’s character and Pitt’s performance ought to be commended in showing that speech is not the only, or the best, way of communicating characterization. 

In the moments where Pitt does get to say a word or two, it is mostly through a narrative-style voice-over, as if from a personal poem or a journal. 

Most films that attempt this type of narration come off as kitschy or melodramatic, but here the style works surprisingly well.

Tommy Lee Jones also does a terrific job in his Ahab-esque performance of a man of science desperate to prove himself right. The dynamic between Pitt and Jones, whether they are on screen together or not, is rich and filled with hope and tension simultaneously. 

Every son suffers the sins of his father. 

“Ad Astra” is a story that most people have seen before. Roy McBride’s journey mirrors that of Aeneas, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter in that they all follow the typical beats of the hero’s journey. 

Like all of these stories, this film also throws its own spin on things and challenges the very idea of what a great man and a hero actually is. 

In the end, “Ad Astra” is a breathtakingly beautiful film about family, rebirth, psychological repression, depression and obsession that challenges viewers to take account of everything that they have already been given in life and to make the best of it. Everything that you need to be “perfectly you” cannot be found in escaping to somewhere else. 

The stars that you ought to be shooting for are much closer than you could ever imagine.

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