' ' Cinema Romantico: Ad Astra

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ad Astra

“Ad Astra”, as a concise opening title scrawl makes clear, means To the Stars, a phrase full of awe though director James Gray’s film often feels in direct opposition to such wonderment, glimpsed in the space of a shot of Saturn outside a spaceship window equating the sixth planet from the Sun with a thumbnail-sized Grand Canyon seen from a passenger airline. Indeed, despite considerable space-set derring-do, “Ad Astra’s” oft-alone astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is nothing more than an emotionally scarred son journeying from the Earth to the Moon to Mars to Neptune to try and reconnect with an emotionally distant father. It is, frankly, a funny metaphor when you type it out, and therefore can only be as good as how the movie peddles it, which, between Gray’s controlled aesthetic and Pitt’s austere performance, is pretty good.

“Ad Astra” opens with an incredible sequence marrying show-stopping action to character as Roy, working on the International Space Antenna, extending from Earth up through the atmosphere and then into the low rung of space, takes a tumble in the wake of a mysterious power surge. This plummeting turns your stomach as his body turns over and over, though the surrounding chaos only stresses Roy’s professionalism in the face of such peril, hardly batting an eye as he doesn’t so much fight to maintain consciousness as just unflappably keep it, eventually parachuting to safety on our blue marble below, heart-stopping and bizarrely serene all rolled into one. Afterwards, his Space Command superiors track these surges to the Lima Project, a spaceship out toward Neptune prowling for intelligent life and captained by Roy’s father, the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long presumed dead. And here Gray, who wrote the screenplay with Ethan Gross, smartly forgoes techno-babble, relaying only pertinent information, that 1.) The entire universe is threatened by these surges and 2.) Roy’s father might still be alive, triggering a quest from Earth to the Moon to Mars to Neptune.

This defines “Ad Astra’s” general indifference to exposition. Liv Tyler, playing Roy’s wife Eve, might hardly be in the movie, but this is shrewd filmmaking, not an inconsiderate filmmaker. Her few flashbacks function as snippets of Roy’s memories, demonstrating his tendency to block out everything, including, sure enough, her, glimpsed in a cruel, evocative shot where she is virtually blurred out in the background, like he’s losing focus on her in the moment. His voiceovers too, while occasionally grasping for too much Malick-y religiosity, function as deliberate contrast to his outward placidity, giving you a sense of the terse tempest kicking up inside. They also call to mind the film’s recurring computerized psych evaluations, as if L. Ron Hubbard’s Auditing has become standard practice.

The psych evaluations are one element of Gray’s excellent world-building, accentuated by Kevin Thompson’s production design and Karen O’Hara’s set decoration, sculpting a world that isn’t the joyous future of “Star Trek” nor the dystopia of “Blade Runner” but a bizarrely believable-feeling progression from where we are now to where we might be if space travel became a reality, with Virgin Atlantic flights to the moon and the framed Welcome to the Moon picture – “Where worlds come together” – comically suggesting a lunar visitors center, like you’ve just crossed Iowa/Illinois border. Seriously, that poster is hilarious. The dark, red-infused interiors of the Mars outpost, meanwhile, suggest a lack of daylight akin to Antarctica’s famed Palmer Station, an unmoored sensation that also comes through in the narrow, claustrophobic settings and in the performances, Ruth Negga’s dour fatalism and a walk-off cameo you deserve to discover on your own if you don’t already know about it implicitly summarizing Martian bureaucracy. Even the action scenes feel built off such matter-of-factness, Roy’s rover escort on the moon coming under attack from pirates, recounted with a sober lyricism that not only befitting Roy’s level-headedness.

This grim, believable world-building is not simply for its own sake but illustrative of Roy’s strange, strangely familiar journey, where pushing the limits of human achievement are deliberately juxtaposed against conventional human failings, reimagining the reckoning of “Apocalypse Now” as nothing more than a son finding his father puttering around in the garage, a sequence where the thought “This is it?” says everything. Yup. This is it. This is all we’ve got. And that’s why we’ve got to hang onto it, which is why it’s so affecting when he lets it go. And if too often as a true leading man Pitt has languished, as Achilles in “Troy” and in the more recent “Allied” where he mistook stiff sullenness for searching, here Gray emphasizes that stiff sullenness as part and parcel to the character which Pitt translates by turning his face into a blank slate where the slightest physical flourish, like an eye twitch, feels like foreshocks before the concluding seismic eruption, brought home in a cup of coffee packing as much punch as a nuclear explosion.

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