“Ad Astra” is a beautiful and moving depiction of a single man’s journey into the unknown to face the unforgotten. The phrase means “to the stars” and this science fiction feels real and valid in the present day. This movie is set ‘in the near future’ and it unfolds to the viewer a possible future. There are many advances: space antennas that tower above the Earth’s surface into the stratosphere, Moon colonies and Mars outposts, and even anti-matter driven spaceships to the far reaches of the Solar System. Yet, mankind still faces the same fears and doubts. There are lunar pirates, rogue operators, and secret agendas that endanger all people.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a well-respected astronaut, currently working on the massive Space Antenna. There is an unknown electro-pulse that hits the Earth from a distant source. The Antenna is affected, and Roy is exposed outside, where he falls to Earth. In a super-secret meeting, he Space Command top brass think that the ‘Surge’ was not a natural occurrence. They believe it was caused on purpose by the commander of Project Lima. That commander was long thought to be dead, somewhere out by the planet Neptune. That commander was also Roy McBride’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
Roy McBride is given a task to head to a Mars outpost and deliver a message out the Neptune location of Project Lima. The top brass assign Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) to stay with Roy and make sure he does his task. There is something strange about this mission. His wife Eve McBride (Liv Tyler) has given up on Roy, due to his distance (both physically and emotionally). Roy and Pruitt head to the Moon. But once on the Moon, they need to get to the dark side. This outside of the Safe Zone However, there are lunar pirates out there, and they are attacked. Most of the military escort team is killed, and Pruitt is badly hurt.
Roy is able to travel on the ship to Mars with a regular shipping and freight crew. The crew stop to help a stranded spacecraft, but it goes very badly. The captain is killed, and McBride helps the crew land on Mars. McBride sends out a voice message to Clifford McBride on the Project Lima. If he is still alive, perhaps the sound of his son’s voice will get a reaction. Roy McBride is told that he must leave and return to Earth immediately. The Mars base leader Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) knows that the ship going out to Neptune is not coming back. That crew has orders to find Clifford McBride and destroy his ship. Lantos helps McBride to sneak aboard the freighter space ship and he confronts the crew. There is an incident that leaves only McBride alive.
McBride takes the ship to find Project Lima, which is the source of the electro-pulse Surge. These keep coming and are getting stronger. Roy McBride is taking account of his own life, and how he grew up not really knowing his father. Yet here he is, going deeper into his own ‘Heart of Darkness’ to confront someone that he has never forgotten, yet someone he does not know. He wonders if his own personal troubles are the same as the person who is causing the Surge – and it is making him question his own belief. When he gets to Project Lima, can he convince his father to come back home? Will he resist and cause greater harm? Will destroying the ship remove the threat to Earth – but also kill Roy and his father?
This movie is an excellent example of how a smart script can lead to a Grade-A performance. The story is interesting, and it does echo some of the ideas from the book ‘Heart of Darkness’ (which morphed into ‘Apocalypse Now’). Brad Pitt is the anchor of the production, and all of the outstanding moments from this movie trace back to his performance. He is steady and quiet, yet his internal thoughts (as voice-over) tell of his deepest fears and his nightmares. Pitt is not showy or over-the-top, but rather is evenly-paced during the whole movie. His encounters with his father (Tommy Lee Jones) are heart-wrenching. His character must face the person that he thought he knew, but who is now mentally unstable.
James Gray has created a well-crafted world of future potential and paranoia. The study to find alien life, with the Space Antenna and with Project Lima, has become an end unto itself. This future has commercial flights to the Moon, yet there are still reckless lunar pirates in the same place that could end your life. The degree of details that he provides for each of the settings is immersive. You can picture what each of these places would be like, should you visit there some day in the future. It is quite impressive. This is a very enjoyable science-fiction work, and a very fine movie overall. There are just a few places where is slows down considerably, and it loses a little of the momentum.
“Ad Astra” will quite literally be taking you ‘to the stars’, but it will undoubtedly be taking many awards in the future.
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
Music by: Max Richter
Length: 124 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Genre: Science Fiction, Drama