THREE AND A HALF STARS Astronaut Roy heads for the stars in search of his long lost, presumably dead, father.
Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones
SCI-FI ACTION DRAMA #ADASTRA
Depending on your point of view, this is either a meaningful look at father-son (insert religious) relationships framed in science fiction, or two hours of twaddle. More likely, AD ASTRA rests somewhere in the middle.
The reason that Roy McBride (Brad Pitt at his most soulful, sometimes sulky, best) became an astronaut is because of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a hero of the military whose courage and bravado led many to go where few had gone before. Yet Roy is also an accidental orphan who never really came to terms with abandonment.
One day he’s atop Earth Antenna, an enormous structure which gives AD ASTRA its thrilling overture, when another mystery burst of anti-matter arrives from the far reaches of the solar system and nearly takes him out. Many of his colleagues aren’t so lucky and tumble kilometres to the surface. The film has a number of such sequences which have all the spectacle of IMAX without the accompanying eyestrain. It’s a win for cinema goers.
In fact, all of AD ASTRA is a visual treat with spectacular flourishes such as the antenna or a space chase on the lunar surface. Director James Gray (better known for tight character dramas like THE IMMIGRANT) is as concerned with the heavily textured environment he creates for his audiences as the story he has to tell. Consider the awful, commercialised hub on the moon that is little more than a theme park. It’s just as perfect as the dowdy, chillingly industrialised military base on Mars. Forget A SPACE ODYSSEY and it’s shiny, hopeful future design; this is exactly what capitalism would conjure up.
We end up on the Moon and Mars because Roy is on his way to Neptune. It’s where his Dad died, but HQ think maybe he’s still alive. And maybe he’s being the bursts of anti-matter. If so, maybe Roy can talk some sense and make him stop.
Thus it ideally frames Gray’s central interest, languidly exploring the relationship between Ben and his Dad and by extension, any son and his father (or mankind and God). But to get there, first we have to navigate some unreasonable hurdles like a 56 year old astronaut being sent to Neptune. Or that the same astronaut stowing away on a rocket by climbing up a ladder. There are a number of unnecessary scenes that become loose threads you can’t help pull at while contemplating the casting of Pitt who, as good as he is, can’t distract from the implausibility of an aged astronaut. It’s distracting.
Which is a shame for a tightening of some scenes and recasting some roles, would have netted Gray a minor masterpiece. In all of McBride’s interstellar navel gazing, he gets to the heart of what it means to be human, to be loved, to be abandoned and to face up to the life you’ve lived. Big themes to think about, if we weren’t busy picking at the threads, thinking about how he climbed a rocket ladder and who left the hatch open.