Ad Astra (2019) Sept 21, 2019 15:30:21 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Sept 21, 2019 15:30:21 GMT -5
Ad Astra (2019)
Directed by: James Gray
Directed by: James Gray
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.
The changing of the leaves and the inception of what is known as "awards season" in the latter months of the year, in reference to the numerous dramas and Oscar-contenders that are released into theaters, often bring at least one notable space-centered film to the big-screen every year. Last year brought Damien Chazelle's First Man, an understated look at Neil Armstrong, and in years past, such works as Gravity reminded us of the helplessness in the Final Frontier, Interstellar showed us the interconnectedness it could bring, and The Martian gave us a decisively optimistic view of a stranded astronaut.
In its approach, James Gray's Ad Astra (Latin for "to the stars") is, in fact, similar to First Man, revolving around an emotionally distant astronaut who has so successfully met the requirements of his job, including managing his cool, that he's effectively alienated those in his personal life, such as his family. The man at the center of Gray's latest film is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who is grappling with his present life by harboring an intense desire to reconnect with his astronaut father. His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), left to work on the Lima Project, a mission to the outer regions of the solar system intent on searching for intelligent life, thus abandoning Roy as a teenager.
Most of the people in Roy's life don't merit more than a few scenes, including his wife (Liv Tyler) and Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, echoing his role in Space Cowboys), a former associate of his father's. This is Roy's story, and he works almost entirely in isolation. The film opens with Roy climbing on the rungs of a gigantic space antenna that stretches miles into the atmosphere. A burst of electromagnetic energy sends Roy careening down towards Earth, in yet another ostensibly random surge, but when it's discovered that some of the surges appear to be attacks stemming from the last known location of the Lima Project, there is a belief, albeit a waning one, that Clifford could still be alive. Roy must know.
Gray's depiction of space in the "near future" is less optimistic and fantastical than the ones, say, somebody like Stanley Kubrick envisioned several decades ago, however it might be the most realistic. Ad Astra focuses on a time where space has been heavily colonized, with souvenir shops, Applebee's, and Subway's littering once untouched and uncharted rock, complete with hotels and concrete apartments for those planning longer stays. It's so bleak and commercial that it prompts an internalized sigh at the dreadful predictability that such an infinite void could still indeed become home to the same familiar chains we consume so unremarkably back on Earth.
Most of the film is told through Roy's narration. Never has Brad Pitt taken on a role more taciturn than this one. The scenes where Roy is the focal point — and that's a good 85% of the film — are told through his weary eyes that reflect everything from loneliness to faint hope. Everything about Roy, and in turn, the film, is measured, with a level-headedness that our hero has employed so successfully that having almost no personality has become his defining personality trait. Pitt's Roy is vaguely similar to Pitt's Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood insofar that both characters' head-strong determination and lack of open communication make them a danger to themselves. Roy blurs the lines of fear and calculation so tactically that it's damn-near impossible to know what he's presently thinking or feeling at any given time.
The film is captured through the lens of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and his masterful eye for space (previously showcased in Interstellar) in a barrage of tricky yet immersive ways. Although Gray's Final Frontier is a charted, commercial landscape of consumerism, Hoytema finds an uncomfortable amount of awe in claustrophobic spacecraft interiors, blinding planetary glows, and fish-eye reflections off of helmet visors, all of which adding further mystery to a place that otherwise appears so well defined. Gray, whose previous writing/directorial efforts The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z inspired everything from "among the best of the decade"-esque praise to sheer indifference, is a poetic tactician when it comes to crafting a story that's as much about drawing from classic works as influence as it is touching those same stories up with a contemporary view.
Ad Astra doesn't bring us to the depths of the Final Frontier to give us as any newfound revelations about the human experience, but it remains compelling on its merits whereas First Man stalled rather early. Brad Pitt relies on his base-level acting traits to give a thoroughly impressive, minimalist performance, and the narrative progresses slowly, allowing gentle immersion into a film that's ultimately a satisfying pastiche of Kubrick, Coppola, and a lot of Gray's own fascination with characters holding out hope that grandiose discovery will lead to personal contentment.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, and Ruth Negga. Directed by: James Gray.