‘Ad Astra’ dwells on battles fought from within
Brad Pitt takes center stage in “Ad Astra,” after playing one of his finest supporting character roles in years a few months ago in “Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood.” But those expecting a space-race spectacle (which ads have hinted at) are going to be rather frustrated, as there are only a few action set-pieces in this plaintive, measured meditation on relationships.
While “Ad Astra” is Latin for “to the stars,” its aim is more at the heart. Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a lauded astronaut whose highly controlled demeanor in the face of calamity has landed him the assignment to lead a secret mission to Mars. It so happens that this is the same planet on which his father-astronaut (played by Tommy Lee Jones) was last heard from decades ago during his voyage to Neptune, and who is presumed to still be alive. Roy’s father is also possibly the one causing all the technical issues besetting the space program back on Earth.
Roy takes the news with stoic resolve and suits up for this long trip, with a layover on the Moon. He is accompanied by Pruitt (played by Donald Sutherland), a doctor unsure whether the younger McBride is up to the physically and emotionally taxing trip.
En route, Roy encounters various technical difficulties, and the isolation of the trip gives him ample time to reflect on childhood shortcomings, professional duties and his marital woes with estranged wife Eve (played by Liv Tyler).
“Ad Astra” is not an easy film to embrace, and it will be off-putting to many viewers seeking more lunar-buggy chases and/or flashbacks of emotional conflict. The film has a similar structure to writer-director James Gray’s previous film, “The Lost City of Z,” and it takes pages from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness.” The elder McBride is our Kurtz, an ivory trader in self-exile in a foreign land, and the younger McBride is Willard, tasked with bringing him back to “civilization.”
And while “Astra” is certainly no “Asteroid Apocalypse Now,” it has multiple strengths. First, you have to overlook the far-too-obvious voiceover narration from Roy, who repeatedly fills our ears with his inner thoughts. “I never really knew him at all,” Roy meditates on his way to find his father. “Or am I him?” Given the rather stoic nature of his character (and the subtlety of the film’s pacing), it’s understandable why the filmmakers felt the need to include this. Too often, though, it’s merely more noise that takes us out of the picture.
And for those who are thankful to see the return of Tyler to the big screen, I have two words: “Don’t blink.”
When it is allowed to settle into its solitary nature, “Astra” excels. Beyond its daddy issues, it looks at deeper philosophical questions of meeting our maker (quite literally), and just what we should pack for the journey.
It’s not without flaws, but it is refreshing to see an original science fiction film aimed at adults that does not feature a number of heroes drilling holes in hurtling meteors or battling intergalactic beasts seeking universal domination. In “Ad Astra,” the battles are fought from within.