“AD ASTRA”: Lost in space

Brad Pitt

“AD ASTRA” My rating: B  124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Published September 19, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

Equal parts “2001” and “Apocalypse Now,” James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is meditative journey to both outer and inner space punctuated with moments of high melodrama.

The film is drop-dead beautiful and features a contemplative performance from Brad Pitt which is among his finest; best of all, one leaves it feeling we’ve truly been on an intergalactic journey.

In the near future Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is a model astronaut, though in voiceover narration he reveals the price of the clear, dispassionate thinking that makes him the equal of any situation.

McBride is a master at suppressing his emotions, a skill that has wrecked his marriage (his ex, who is seen only briefly, is played by Liv Tyler) but made him the poster boy of space program efficiency. Only the occasional twitch of an eyelid suggests Roy’s inner turmoil.

Moreover, Roy comes by his heroism genetically — his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was an astronaut who decades ago went off on a mission to Neptune to look for extraterrestrial life and hasn’t been heard from for 30 years.

As “Ad Astra” begins Roy is doing maintenance work on a radio tower so tall its upper reaches scrape the stratosphere.  A mysterious electrical pulse blows the tower’s power grid, sending our man in freefall back to Earth.

Roy survives, thanks to his parachute, but he subsequently learns in a top secret briefing that the authorities believe the damaging electromagnetic pulses are coming from Neptune, the last-known location of the elder McBride’s exploratory ship. If Roy’s father is behind these pulses — which threaten human life — perhaps a message from his son will bring a happy resolution.

The plan is for Roy to radio his Pops from an outpost on Mars.  First, though, he has to take a commercial shuttle to the moon (a pillow and blanket kit costs $150), then make his way to a launch complex on the dark side of that satellite (apparently the moon is an international combat zone with marauding pirates on speeding lunar rovers attempting to highjack official vehicles).

From there Roy will be blasted off to Mars as a passenger on a military rocket…though the journey will be interrupted by an SOS from a deep space research station.

Eventually our man will find himself heading to Neptune, though not without a weightless martial arts fight and some gunplay.

The journey toward a possible madman, interrupted by dramatic digressions, mirrors the plot of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” while the film’s philosophical underpinnings clearly owe much to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Kubrick, though, adhered to a less-is-more narrative.  Roy’s inner dialogue, as provided by the screenplay from Gray and Ethan Gross, threatens to overload the proceedings with too much explanation.

But you can’t find much to knock with Pitt’s performance, a superb example of internalized acting.  A man as buttoned-down as Roy McBride could be a maddeningly frustrating shipmate; thank heavens, then, for the patented Pitt charisma, which fills even the quiet moments with intense watchability.

The supporting cast is strong — Ruth Nega, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, LisaGay Hamilton (among others) — but most are on and off the screen in a matter of seconds.

For the most part, “Ad Astra” is a one-man show, and Pitt is the man it requires.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene


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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.