Ad Astra

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My dad split when I was 4-years-old and I basically never saw him again. One time I was asking my mom what movies he liked and she told me they saw a double-feature the year before I was born (1968) that was 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ice Station Zebra. 2001 was two hours and 45 minutes long and Zebra was two and a half hours. She was bored to tears and he was in heaven.

I thought about that story because during Ad Astra, my wife was bored during the just over two hour film, and Brad Pitt plays an astronaut whose dad split on the family when he was a young boy.

Roy McBride (Pitt) is a hot-shot astronaut who in an intriguing opening sequence, survives a fall from a big tower. The brass meet with him to discuss how he always stays calm during snafus, his heart rate never even rising. That makes him the perfect person for a mission. They give him news that turns this movie into an Apocalypse Now scenario. You see, his dad is H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is a legendary astronaut. He is so legendary, his picture sits next to Buzz Aldrin in the halls of NASA. He went on this “Lima Project” which was setting up a space station near Neptune to look for alien life. Since the Earth has been experiencing a number of power surges that cause outages, and lots of deaths (the background news at one point showed over 45,000 dying in a previous one), NASA is convinced Clifford McBride is still alive on that station and is causing them. If he’s not stopped, it could kill everyone on the planet. So just as Martin Sheen was sent into the jungles to find and kill Marlon Brando, Pitt is off to see if his dad is, in fact, alive…and is a rogue astronaut bent on destruction. 

So first it’s a quick jaunt to the moon, with Colonel Thomas Pruitt. It’s a bit distracting that Pruitt is played by Donald Sutherland because…he was in Space Cowboys, also with Tommy Lee Jones. And there’s something distracting about an actor’s baggage taking me out of the picture (just as my wife didn’t like the cameo by actress Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black). 

We find the moon has become a tourist trap, with various food courts and fun photo ops (side note: don’t ask the flight attendant for a pillow; it cost McBride $150).

This is when Pruitt tells McBride a little more about his father, and the plot thickens. And in the first half of the movie, you are interested in these characters. Unfortunately, the second half just has you checking out on him and his daddy issues. The deliberate pacing worked well for me, but many will just get bored. All of that together, certainly makes you care less about the characters. In fact, the only one I ended up really caring about was a character on Mars played by Ruth Negga (Loving), who is curious about McBride and his intentions.

There are a few exciting scenes. Some pirates on the moon come after McBride like something out of Mad Max. There was also a fight in zero gravity that was one of the few things my wife liked (I think she liked that this is also the second movie in two months, in which Pitt finds an excuse to take off his shirt). Oh, and don’t even get me started on the space monkeys. Yes, this movie has space monkeys, and they’re scary as hell.

Roy’s wife is played by Liv Tyler, and she’s not given a lot to do but stare at her husband, peeved that he’s a bit too into his job and not her. We just saw that same thing in First Man (but then, a lot in this movie is derivative, including Negga’s character being like the boy from The Space Between Us). Also, as much as I enjoyed Pitt’s melancholy performance, his narrations made me think of Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Oh, and the constant updates McBride has to do for psych evaluations, would’ve been interesting if we hadn’t seen that in a few other films.

Writer/director James Gray, who I’ve always been hit-and-miss with, also blows it on two fronts. Some of the science isn’t accurate; and the basic premise that you’d send the guy up to kill his father (if he’s actually still alive). I had that same problem in Looper, when they wanted the main character to kill his future self…and they were all shocked when he didn’t do it.

All that being said, there’s some serene, cerebral, sci-fi that was intriguing. One critic cracked me up by saying that the movie needed “More stargazing, and less navel gazing.”

I was just so mesmerized by the gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk). There’s also a lovely, sometimes operatic score by Max Richter (who also did The Last Days on Mars six years ago).

Another frustrating thing was seeing John Ortiz, because I’m a fan and wish he would’ve had more to do [side note: find his movie Jack Goes Boating with Phillip Seymour Hoffman from 2010).

People are either going to love this or hate it. I was somewhere in between.

2 ½ stars out of 5.


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