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Ad Astra

I’ve been doing this for a long time, folks. Coming up on eleven years now, which is pretty much my entire adult life. That’s a lot of time to see a lot of movies come and go. I’ve seen overhyped movies crash and burn, I’ve seen critical and commercial darlings fade into the ether. I’ve seen legions of fans slobbering over the next blockbuster franchise entry, only to consume it, excrete it, and immediately begin screaming for the next entry.

After all of that, I’ve simply become too jaded to do advance hype anymore. The last time I recall getting completely and totally stoked for a movie, we got the pompous, boring, butt-ugly clusterfuck of Macbeth (2015). But then I heard about Ad Astra.

It’s a hard science fiction film about space travel, the cast is phenomenal from top to bottom, and the trailer kicked all kinds of ass. This looked exactly like the kind of movie I wanted to see more of after leaving The Martian back in 2015. I genuinely regretted that I couldn’t see this one opening weekend because there was seriously, absolutely nothing about this movie that I wasn’t stoked to try out.

I’m still not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this.

Our stage is set in a near future, in which humanity has placed its hopes in the search for intelligent alien life to find solutions to our problems. Thus commercial space flight is commonplace, we’ve built colonies on Mars and the moon, we’ve built giant communications towers extending straight up through the atmosphere, and we’ve apparently figured out artificial gravity. Faster-than-light travel still isn’t a thing, though.

Oh, and we have guns that work in the vacuum of space. No word on whether they’re laser guns, gas-powered, or if they’ve invented some kind of gunpowder that ignites in a zero-oxygen environment. Whatever.

Anyway, a lot of this progress came courtesy of Dr. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the first of this new breed of astronaut, who went farther into space than anyone else had at the time. Then McBride led the Lima Project, an expedition to Neptune with the goal of continuing the search for alien life without radiation interference from the sun.

Flash forward to about 30 years after the Lima Project dropped out of all contact. Our story begins in earnest with The Surge, a massive power blackout that affected the entire Planet Earth. Long story short, the bigwigs of the US government have concluded that the Surge was likely caused by an antimatter reaction, not unlike the antimatter reactor that powered the Lima Project. And wouldn’t you know it, the Surge came from somewhere around Neptune.

So now Clifford McBride and his associates may be directly responsible for a chain reaction that could mean the destruction of our solar system. Naturally, the Lima Project’s exact coordinates have to be found and contact has to be made before any further action can be taken. To accomplish this, the PTB go to McBride’s son (Maj. Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt), now a respectable and decorated astronaut in his own right. That said, this whole mission is wrapped up in so much secrecy that Roy immediately figures out there’s something else going on.

Thus Roy begins on his Space Odyssey through the moon and Mars on his way to the furthest edge of the solar system. There are a couple of action sequences, though only the moon buggy chase with pirates is any fun. (Seriously, with that description, it had better be.) There’s a little bit of horror here as well, but it’s pretty much entirely limited to one jump scare — probably the best jump scare I’ve ever seen in my life, but still.

No, the bulk of the plot concerns Roy untangling the secrets and conspiracies he’s found himself a part of, thus reckoning with his place in the grander scheme of things and the cause he’s given his life to while also coping with extreme paranoia. And of course Roy also has to deal with revelations about his father, bringing up his own daddy issues and emotional baggage, to say nothing of the sins and responsibilities he unwittingly inherited from his dad. Oh, and we can’t forget the automated psych evaluations — at least half the movie is comprised of dialogue and voiceover in which Roy talks to a machine about his current mental and emotional state.

Yes, this is very much a spacefaring psychological thriller, joining a long cinematic pedigree from 2001: A Space Odyssey right up through High Life. Of course, the crucial difference is that those movies spoke in abstract and psychedelic images, overflowing the senses until we’re as discombobulated as the characters. This movie, by comparison, is far more literal. For better or worse, you’ll never see legions of cinephiles across the decades arguing with each other over what the film means.

No, this movie is so thoroughly rooted in hard science that with very few and subtle exceptions, everything in this movie was made to look like it could be invented within the next 10-20 years. The filmmakers show a clear reverence for science and space travel, plainly visible in every last painstakingly detailed corner of the production. But what’s really fascinating is that this reverence for space travel comes packaged with a deep cynicism towards humanity.

Consider what a spacecraft needs just to send people up without killing them. Even setting aside the food and water, the craft still needs so much equipment for air recycling, septic treatment, temperature control, radiation shielding, and God knows what else. Outer space is the most hostile place imaginable, filled with so many environments so wildly different from the tiny blue speck we evolved to live on — how could we expect to live for very long out there, and why would we want to?

Moreover, humans are inherently social creatures. So much so, it’s been proven that solitary confinement can wreak havoc on the human mind. If we can barely survive being stuck alone in a prison cell on Earth, how could any lone human possibly fare inside a tin can floating through the infinite void of space for any extended length of time? For that matter, are we really so social, so deathly afraid of being alone, that we have to continuously reach out to other galaxies in search of anyone else?

All of this is why currently, we only send up the best and the brightest, and becoming an astronaut takes years of training. So what happens when commercial space flight happens and the bar is so drastically lowered that pretty much anyone can go up there? Can you even begin to imagine the risks and ramifications of some panicky, short-sighted, underqualified company man behind the stick of a goddamn space shuttle? And as for the passengers, what do you think they’ll do when they get to the moon? Will they treat it with any kind of reverence, or strip it down for resources and put up shopping malls while we kill each other for more real estate? You know, like we’ve done with every square inch of the planet we’ve already got?

I previously mentioned The Martian, another work of hard science fiction all about the wondrous beauty and fatal terror of outer space. The difference is that The Martian was all about the ingenuity and resilience of mankind, showing how we can overcome any obstacle and reach any star through courage, persistence, creativity, and teamwork. By comparison, Ad Astra submits that humanity is flawed in such fundamentally deep-seated ways that we may never be worthy of exploring the cosmos. It’s not a message I agree with personally, but the point is elegantly made.

It’s a good thing the cast is so insanely overqualified, because the supporting cast has basically nothing except the actors playing them. Liv Tyler is a fantastic example — as Roy’s estranged wife, she has basically nothing to do but play a beautiful and forlorn image. Which she does superbly well, to be fair. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are basically playing plot devices, so it’s a mercy that they have enough charisma to hold the screen. Tommy Lee Jones probably has more screen time than the rest of the supporting cast put together — and most of that is in recorded archival footage! — but damned if he doesn’t make every last instant of screen time count. All the other no-names in the supporting cast might as well be wearing a bright red shirt with a sign saying “I WILL DIE OR TURN TRAITOR.”

But of course this is Brad Pitt’s show from start to finish, turning in what may well be his most dynamic, magnetic, vulnerable performance since the one-two punch of Fight Club and Seven. It could’ve gotten so incredibly boring and pretentious, repeatedly listening to the character’s inner thoughts and ramblings for minutes at a time, but Pitt keeps it engaging. His physical transformation over so many months of space travel is impressive, and he’s got a compelling way of showing so many roiling emotions under a tough and placid surface.

Ad Astra is a movie that tries to balance the unknowable infinite grandeur of outer space with the stubborn frailty of mankind. Between writer/director James Gray and star/producer Brad Pitt, the two of them have that balance totally nailed. The supporting cast is less than memorable, but they serve their purpose well enough without distracting or harming. The film’s cynical and somewhat misanthropic message may turn away some filmgoers, and the pacing can make the movie feel considerably longer than its two-hour runtime. Even so, I can’t possibly deny that it’s a thoroughly engaging, thoughtful and intelligent, superbly made film.

This one might be worth the IMAX treatment, folks. Definitely check it out.

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