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To Infinity ... and Beyond

Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt
STX Entertainment
 110 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByLorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez
Ad Astra

It took 12 years for the Voyager 2 probe to reach Neptune, and a mere seven months for spacecraft to reach Mars when the alignment of the planets was right. Figure in the scientific improvements that will doubtless take place over the next century or so and we can shave a bit off those totals, but the fact remains that, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to take a long time to get anywhere past the Earth’s Moon, and any movie that claims to be scientifically plausible must acknowledge that fact. On that basis, James Gray’s new film, Ad Astra, may be the most realistic film about interplanetary space flight ever made. The movie is only two hours long, but by the time audiences leave the theater, they will think they’ve been in their seats for 12 years.


Ad Astra posits a future in which mankind has set up permanent stations on the Moon and Mars and launched manned craft even deeper into space. The most ambitious effort ever, dubbed the Lima Project, was sent to Neptune’s orbit in an effort to communicate with other worlds, free of interference from the inner regions of the solar system. The mission, commanded by legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared 16 years before the start of Ad Astra, and McBride and his crew were presumed lost. Presumed, that is until the Earth is hit by massive, deadly power surges emanating from the area where McBride’s space ship should be. The powers-that-be on Earth dispatch Clifford’s son, Roy (Brad Pitt), a celebrated astronaut in his own right, to find out if his father is alive and responsible for the deadly attacks. If so, Roy would then have to either persuade him to return to Earth or neutralize him.


As you might guess from the preceding paragraphs, Roy can’t just hop into an Enterprise-style space ship and warp his way to Neptune. Instead, he goes via passenger ship to the Moon and then cargo ship to Mars. He’s got a fellow traveler for part of the way, another old-time astronaut Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), who is an old friend of Clifford. Eventually, Roy gets to Mars, but before he can board the craft for the long journey to Neptune, he learns that he has flunked a mandatory psych evaluation that all astronauts must periodically undergo. Roy is ordered to stay behind while the rest of the crew heads to Neptune. However, a friendly worker (Ruth Negga) at the space station finally reveals the truth about the mission to Roy. Clifford has actually killed off the rest of his crew and gone completely nuts. The spacecraft that Roy was on is not heading to Neptune on a rescue mission, but, rather, to nuke Clifford’s space station. An understandably upset Roy, with help from his new ally, manages to stow away on the craft before it takes off for Neptune. Roy hopes to be able to reason first with the crew on the spacecraft and, second, with his father.


Anyone reading the screenplay of Ad Astra would think that it’s a rousing space adventure. It starts off with a literal bang as an explosion knocks Roy off his 100-mile-high antenna, sending him hurtling to Earth. Later, he encounters actual pirates on the Moon, trying to highjack his vehicle as he heads from one complex to another. Finally, when Roy heads, first to Mars and then to Neptune, he and the other crew members encounter a variety of dangerous situations. 


However, on the screen, Ad Astra feels completely different. As the tagline for Alien says, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Ad Astra attempts to portray the physics of space travel realistically, and, in that, the movie succeeds. Characters move in slower motion to simulate weightless or low-weight conditions, and the chase on the lunar surface appears like watching a 1980s video game. But realism comes at the expense of suspense or any sense of compelling viewing. Admittedly, the curiosity factor means that the first couple of minutes of seeing the effects in Ad Astra are interesting. (It helped that the best effects were in the opening sequence featuring Roy’s falling back to Earth from the antenna.) But the novelty factor wears off quickly.


The various action scenes in Ad Astra serve the ironic effect of slowing the movie down tremendously. But that isn’t the worst time-waster that writer/director James Gray uses. Roy engages in several lengthy monologues during his psych evaluation sessions. In a book, this might be a perfect way to establish character. Onscreen, however, the device also serves to bring the movie’s action to a halt. The film errs in yet another way in the manner in which it introduces the character of Clifford. Before Roy actually meets his father, the audience gets to “meet” him through poor-quality videos shot from a distance, with obstacles in the way. Again, it’s an accurate recreation of the type of message one might receive from a space station under those conditions. But it fails to give a precise picture of Clifford.


In many ways, Clifford is the most interesting character in Ad Astra. A direct literary descendant of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now), Clifford, as played by Tommy Lee Jones, is far more than a standard cookie-cutter villain. He embodies the effects of deep-space travel on a man for whom outer space was his only real life. This is the best role in years for Jones, but, sadly, one that might have been worthy of end-of-the-year acclaim if presented in a more accessible fashion. Brad Pitt also delivers a solid performance in a much more challenging role, playing a man whose reputation (as stated repeatedly in the movie) is as someone who always stays calm under pressure, but whose real feelings only become evident as the film goes on.


I really want to give a thoughtful, well-acted movie like Ad Astra a better review, but it is a difficult movie to sit through. Accuracy doesn’t always make for compelling cinema, and, here, James Gray concentrates too much on the optics of the film as opposed to its dramatic impact. The effects in Ad Astra are stunning at times (look for some technical Oscar nominations), but what could have been a quality drama often gets lost in the shuffle. The best news about Ad Astra is that the movie has a bright future in home video. All insomniacs need to do for a good night’s sleep is to start watching it, and quality rest is virtually assured. 

In this clip, Brad Pitt runs into trouble while on a space walk outside a giant antenna.

Read other reviews of Ad Astra: 

Ad Astra (2019) on IMDb