As it turns out, “Ad Astra” is a Latin phrase meaning “To the Stars,” and what better way for a film to announce its lofty and perhaps pretentious intentions than with a title sure to send many of us scurrying to a Google Search before even seeing the movie.
I had no idea prior to conducting said search. To me, “Ad Astra” sounded like an ill-fated hatchback car from the 1970s, or the name of a character from an arcade game.
But given the nature of director/co-writer James Gray’s admirably daring, bold and ambitious, sure-to-be-polarizing, flat-out weird, crazy fever-dream space opera, it’s only fitting for the title to be so obscure and challenging.
This is a movie that somehow manages to work in a “Fast and Furious”-type car chase/shootout ON THE MOON as well as some brutally violent confrontations between space travelers, and yet always maintains its overall tone as a deliberately paced, quietly unnerving, sometimes maddeningly, cryptic sci-fi suspense story in the tradition of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — with a heavy sprinkling of elements from “Apocalypse Now,” as well as any number of movies about sons trying to live up to the legacy of their legendary fathers.
“Ad Astra” is set in a future in which the planet Earth has been depleted of resources, and humankind has colonized the moon, set up a base on Mars and sent commercial spacecrafts to far-flung planets such as Neptune on missions to discover intelligent life in the universe.
We might need their help to survive.
Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, a veteran astronaut and key member of a team constructing an enormous antenna designed to communicate with aliens, serves as our voice-over narrator.
Through the years, Roy has become something of a legend because his resting heart rate never rises and he always passes the psychological tests administered before and after every mission. He has an almost robotic capacity to cope with any situation.
At least professionally.
Like so many laser-focused, closed-off, mission-obsessed, space-movie anti-heroes, Roy is a simmering cauldron of repressed feelings and has blown up his marriage — but of course he still pines for his ex, Eve, who is played by Liv Tyler, who should know better about getting mixed up with these rebels given her history with the Ben Affleck character in “Armageddon.”
Roy’s coolly efficient but decidedly problematic method of compartmentalizing his issues is rocked to the core when he’s told his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most decorated and accomplished and worshipped space explorer the world has ever known, the man who led the potentially universe-changing “Liam Project” expedition to Neptune, the hero thought dead for some 29 years, is actually alive … and is most likely responsible for creating a series of electrical surges that will destroy Earth.
Like Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” it appears the senior McBride has ventured deep into the heart of darkness, has lost his mind and can’t be stopped. In a last and desperate Hail Mary, Roy has been enlisted to travel to the moon and Mars and beyond in the hopes a message from long-abandoned son to father will somehow dissuade Clifford from carrying out his mad plan.
Roy’s obsession with getting some kind of closure with his absentee father, no matter what it takes, is intense and all-consuming and bloody and has brutal consequences. (In movie terms, a guy building a baseball field a la “Field of Dreams” just to play catch with his dead dad seems like a harmless diversion compared to the lengths Roy will go to in his quest to find his father.)
As Roy navigates a new world Wild West, tries to separate truth from commercial space propaganda and finds apparent revolutionary, kindred-spirit allies such as Ruth Negga’s Mars base commander, “Ad Astra” serves up a steady diet of social commentary, from the seemingly anachronistic placements of an Applebee’s and a Hudson News stand on the moon, indicating commercialism continues to rule; to the dialogue about mood-altering drugs; to the steady stream of references to services offering “crisis counseling” to those who dare question the status quo.
In the hands of director and co-writer James Gray, “Ad Astra” is one of the most beautiful films of the year, even when it makes little sense and even when Brad Pitt’s performance veers between one of his all-time best and one of his all-time not-best.
Such is the nature of “Ad Astra.”
Whatever that means.