Ad Astra review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
For a space epic with lots of special effects, explosions and, yes, even pirates on the moon, James Gray’s Ad Astra is a somber surprise of science fiction. It’d be easy for a film as large as this, boasting a blockbuster scenario and a towering lead actor, to become lost in the muck of its own action and theatrics. To my delight, however, this is a deeply cerebral and introspective film that delves deeper into the psyche of a man trying to escape from himself and out towards the stars.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) serves as an astronaut in a future where mankind has expanded to the stars. Mars now has a military base, the moon is a tourist attraction and Earth now has gigantic structures that poke the atmosphere. Roy is considered an important asset to his government because of his lack of emotion. In the opening scene, we see how he handles a very frightening power surge and explosion on a tower hundreds of miles above Earth without raising his heart rate. Even with fires and falling people surrounding him, he keeps his cool and handles the situation as best as he can before dropping towards Earth in his parachute.
He serves another purpose as well. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) recently went missing on a space station around Neptune but the government believes he may be alive and causing shockwaves that is damaging other planets and space stations. With his family connections, the military believes Roy can talk some sense into his dad and not become emotionally vulnerable given his unemotional state. This is made clear from Roy’s many psychological evaluations and his distant nature from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler). He’s so distant he doesn’t even want her to touch him. There’s also a bitter past that Roy is shutting out as hard as he can.
Roy’s unemotional state may also make him the best candidate for a simplistic sci-fi action picture as well. Indeed, the first act of the film seems to set this all up. There’s a very matter-of-fact manner of dialogue on informing Roy of his mission and Roy’s voice-over explaining his world. There’s also plenty of action with Roy making a stop at the moon where pirates attack their rover in a chase where astronauts shoot at one another. But then, once the story shifts to Mars, the film becomes more than just theatrics. Roy comes to terms with himself and his father. Thanks to his dad’s best friend (Donald Sutherland), Roy soon learns that he’s not only being lied to by the government but that he’s also lying to himself.
What’s most wondrous about a film such as this is that it boasts fantastic special effects and a fully-realized future with its own technological advancements and conflicts of resources, all of it used to tell a personal story of man’s desire to escape. Curiously, I found the film does an astounding job showcasing traits of autism. The film never outright states that Roy has this condition but he has a lot of familiar traits and his internal thoughts are very reflective.
Ad Astra has all the brilliance of the engrossing somber sci-fi I love to discover. Brad Pitt is in top form by delivering a nuanced performance of a conflicted astronaut who learns forgiveness and sadness on a journey of self-discovery. The special effects are brilliant, featuring lots of zero-g segments and many of them action-oriented with amazing tension. The atmosphere feels rustic and believable, never once looking too futuristic. There’s such a grand sense of majesty to such a film that I just can’t get it out of my mind and loved every minute of it in the theater. This is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2019.