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Review: Ad Astra (2019)

Ad Astra (2019)

Directed by: James Gray

Premise: A power surge emanating from the edge of the solar system threatens life on Earth. An astronaut (Brad Pitt) learns that the surges may be coming from a ship captained by his father (Tommy Lee Jones). He is sent on a secret mission to investigate and stop the surges.

What Works: Recent years have seen a string of space exploration dramas including The Martian, Interstellar, and Gravity. Ad Astra is another entry in this trend but it is distinctly different from these other pictures and from a lot of this kind of science fiction. Many hard sci-fi films present an optimistic view of humanity through stories of people using science and ingenuity to conquer the elements, spread humanity’s reach to distant planets, and achieve new understandings of our place in the universe. Some of that holds true in Ad Astra but the film isn’t so optimistic about humanity. This is a contemplative movie but it isn’t so easily reassuring as other movies. In that respect, Ad Astra is challenging and the movie contrasts the personal with the cosmic in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally revealing. That push and pull between the macro and micro is encapsulated in the journey of an astronaut played by Brad Pitt. He is the son of a legendary space explorer who disappeared decades ago on a mission to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. It’s discovered that the father may be alive and responsible for the power surges threatening life on Earth. The son’s mission is to save the planet but he is also on a personal journey to sort out his complicated relationship with his father. Those missions dovetail together perfectly and coalesce in a climax that has implications about humanity’s place in the universe and the limits of scientific knowledge to give us meaning. Ad Astra is also beautifully made. The movie uses sound especially well and it has many composite images that visualize the link between the personal and the cosmic.

What Doesn’t: Despite its epic scope and large stakes, Ad Astra is a low key film. It’s made with a great deal of restraint. That is a strange combination because this story has the kind of scenario that would be found in a mainstream Hollywood spectacle like Armageddon or Geostorm but it is presented in an entirely different style. Ad Astra’s restraint is most obviously embodied by Brad Pitt’s performance. Pitt has typically played his roles with a cool detachment but he is different here. Pitt’s character is forced to contain and compartmentalize his emotions and his performance is perfectly gauged. The staid approach is right for this movie; the filmmakers use this sci-fi adventure premise for something thoughtful but it requires some patience on the part of the audience.  

Bottom Line: Ad Astra is an excellent film. The movie fits within the science fiction tradition that extends back to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it also challenges many of the recurring ideas of space dramas. This is a thoughtful and impeccably made film that’s also quite moving.

Episode: #769 (October 6, 2019)