After Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is almost killed when a power surge rattles his perch on the world’s highest attenna, he’s called in to a top secret meeting. The global surges which have caused the loss of more than 40,000 lives have been determined to be caused by cosmic rays coming from Neptune, specifically the Lima Project station run by Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), earth’s farthest traveling astronaut who hasn’t been heard from in sixteen years. Officials believe that he is alive and causing these bursts and assign his son to locate him by traveling ‘to the stars,’ “Ad Astra.
Laura's Review: C+
Cowriter (with Ethan Gross)/director James Gray’s last film, “The Lost City of Z,” was based on a true story about real life explorer Percy Fawcett, whose long voyages caused him to not be recognized by his son, the same son disappearing with him years later on Percy’s last quest to find the legendary city. Now Gray tells a fictional space tale set in the near future with a similar father/son dynamic if that father were “Apocalypse Now’s” Colonel Kurtz. But this time around, instead of old-fashioned adventure filmmaking, Gray has gone with the slowly paced, visual razzle dazzle of a “2001.” Unfortunately, the 124 minute film, despite a few exciting scenes, tells a story which could be conveyed with one sentence. Some may rhapsodize, others will be bored to tears.
In a nutshell, Roy, who astonishes his employers with a pulse rate which has never eclipsed 80 bpm, is emotionally reticent because of abandonment issues, something he learns to overcome as he traverses our solar system to find his father. In an internal performance, Pitt, aided by flash backs to his relationship with Eve (Liv Tyler), expresses this with quiet assurance, opening up ever so slightly with each new person he encounters, anguishing when his mission focus results in an ironic parallel to his father’s breakdown. Yes, his heart rate will increase, noted by those who evaluate his frequent psychological evaluationss.
The film’s opening accident is pulse-pounding, even if Roy’s heartbeat remains steady. Inducing visual vertigo as he climbs higher than any skyscraper, we see Roy’s fear as explosions engulf coworkers above him, then lose control as his body spins during his fall. In both its protagonist’s temperament and its chaotic action, “Ad Astra” begins much like last year’s “First Man.”
Thereafter, the film can be broken into three sets of three. There are three intense action scenes, three legs of Roy’s journey and three important characters introduced during each. First Roy takes a commercial trip to the moon (where the request for a blanket is countered with a charge of $125!), accompanied by his father’s friend Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). But their transfer from their moon landing station (watch for the Applebee’s sign) to where the Cepheus will take off for Mars is across hostile territory. Pruitt is injured when they are attacked by pirate rovers and cannot continue the journey, but he slips Roy a drive with top secret video of McBride Sr.
Like that commercial trip, the Cepheus’ crew knows nothing of their passenger’s mission. Roy is annoyed when Captain Lawrence Tanner (Donnie Kershawarz) delays to respond to an SOS from a Norwegian biomedical research ship, but he accompanies Tanner to check things out. What they find is horrific and only Roy returns, Lt. Donald Stanford (Loren Dean) taking command of the ship (Roy has to take over when things get dicey landing on Mars). There he meets the American Section Superintendent Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), who will relate an uncomfortable connection to him. Roy is taken to the secure laser link where he is to try to make contact with his father. He gets no response from his scripted communiqué, but when he improvises with a more emotional message, no one will tell him what the response is and his psych eval immediately jettisons him from the project. Lantos helps him stow away on the Cepheus, now headed to Neptune, by pointing him to the underground lake (on Mars!) that ends at its launching pad.
It will be Roy alone who encounters his father, first signaled by their shared history of watching black and white musicals, the Nicholas Brothers performing ‘I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo’ from “Orchestra Wives” playing on a Lima Project station monitor. While glad to see his son, dad offers little comfort with his blunt words. If “Ad Astra” begins much like “First Man” its ending recalls “Gravity.”
The combined efforts of the film’s production designer, art director, special effects team and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) ensure a feast for the eyes, but there is nothing here that distinguishes this film from many that have come before. That goes for the film’s story as well, whether seen as character study or father/son tale. Pitt and the film’s craft team cannot be faulted, but Gray’s simple tale set within limitless space is so self serious, it becomes ponderous.