New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Ad Astra

Brad Pitt hurtles through space as astronaut Roy McBride in this visually impressive psychological sci fi drama. The pace is slow, deliberate and totally mesmerizing. Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z with Pitt) wanted to make this film the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on the big screen. It’s realistically unrealistic. He even used archival sounds from space launches to enhance the total experience. Max Richter (Shutter Island, Mary Queen of Scots), sets the mood with a dreamlike, ethereal score. Because of the visuals, we recommend seeing this one in IMAX.

The opening scenes put Roy on a mammoth tower-observatory at the edge of space above Earth. He’s outside on a repair mission when there is a catastrophic power surge that causes him to get knocked off. He is propelled toward Earth. Your heart will race. He was facing certain death, but Roy calmly and methodically gets the situation under control. We thought this might end up being a very short movie. 

James creates the most perfect astronaut in Brad Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride. He is the son of brilliant scientist and revered astronaut-explorer, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The elder McBride left decades ago on the Lima Project, determined to find intelligent life, but hasn’t been heard from in years, and is presumed dead. He left when Roy was a child. Roy took up the family business. 

Roy is emotionless in the face of danger. Nothing seems to rattle him. He constantly takes psychological evaluations through the film, always passing the test to continue the mission. H watchword is, “I will not allow myself to be distracted.” Roy seems to have been stripped of human emotion and empathy. That’s the big reason he’s separated from his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) who James depicts in scenes forlornly looking at Roy from afar. With sad eyes, she barely says anything, but you know it just isn’t working. 

Because of the surge which is threatening the Earth’s very existence, Space Com suspects it originated from the Lima ship now near Neptune. Has Roy’s father gone rogue? Roy encounters his father’s old friend, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) who helps sheds light on the father and son’s distant relationship. 

Roy is sent on the mission to stop the surge and find out if his father is still alive. First he goes to the moon, where he ends up in a chase with pirates in lunar dune buggies a la Mad Max. That chase is ludicrous, shot from the side to side, and overhead showing wheel marks in the moon’s surface. Of course, Roy wins that round and he and his crew proceed to Mars. On the way, an encounter with another ship, and the animal lab experiment on it, is one that might send you to the moon or at least jump sky high.  

The film supposedly takes place in the near future, but not really. The Moon is already colonized, and there is a whole population living under Mars. There, Roy encounters Helen Lantos, (Ruth Negga) who was born on the Red Planet. Near future? Not so much. Discussion with Lantos about life in space and family start to make Roy’s emotions emerge. When he’s pulled off the mission because of his feelings, the movie devolves into standard action scenes to become a stowaway and continue the course. Can you really just climb on and into a space ship as it’s blasting off the surface of Mars? It’s becomes more like a Moonraker film. James and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) use every camera able to shoot Pitt climbing up, down and all around, to get into the space ship. Roy is back on on track again.

The arc of this story is Brad Pitt’s journey towards becoming fully human. He has always been able to control his emotions but as the plot unfolds he begins to lose control. As this happens he emerges as a character who we can care about and have sympathy for. It’s all in Pitt’s face. The reflections of light on his eyes through the glass of his helmet show more emotion than is he said one word. His are eyes show wonder, then calculation, and finally revelation as he’s learning to be human again reflecting on memories in flashbacks with his wife and his father throughout this journey.  

You have to allow yourself to get into the deliberate rhythm of the movie. When James lets the pace dictate the progression, it creates more suspense and tension than in the few contrived action sequences that do pick it up. The director uses the supporting cast minimally. Just like Tarentino did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, James lets Pitt’s face tell the story without much dialogue. His performance elevates this movie beyond a simple space adventure scenario. Ad Astra means “to the stars.” Despite the breathtaking visions James creates of these celestial bodies and space, Brad Pitt is the brightest star.

Twentieth Century Fox     2 Hours 2Minutes        PG-13

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