I’d heard that AD ASTRA might be one of those movies like THE AMERICAN or SOLARIS that is a little slow or arty or whatever but since it’s a big release with a big movie star from OCEAN’S ELEVEN a bunch of people who aren’t comfortable with that type of movie see it and either get real disappointed or fall asleep about ten minutes in. That might’ve been a myth, because it got a B- Cinemascore, which is the same as HUSTLERS. But I guess hearing that got me primed because it was alot more exciting than I expected!
This is the first movie I’ve seen by James Gray (LITTLE ODESSA, THE YARDS, WE OWN THE NIGHT, TWO LOVERS, THE IMMIGRANT, THE LOST CITY OF Z), but I know he has a reputation for quiet and thoughtful dramas. And honestly I didn’t expect as much sci-fi as we get – it’s a little further into the near future than I thought. From the trailer it looked more like a straight astronaut drama. And I got nothing against astronauts, there are many fine astronauts, but I think I was born without that gene many guys have that makes them involuntarily swell up with patriotism any time they think about a person or object that has been to the moon. Or maybe I just didn’t see THE RIGHT STUFF at an impressionable age.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, CUTTING CLASS) is a military man, a major in the US Space Command. That sounds like he’s Buzz Lightyear or some shit, but at the beginning it just means he works on a maintenance crew climbing around on the outside of a floating tower, basically a giant antenna, in the upper atmosphere. That’s what he’s doing at the beginning of what becomes known as “The Surge,” a series of mysterious power surges emanating from across the solar system. In the moment what that means is the antenna starts falling apart and there’s a terrifying sequence of trying to parachute to the earth under a shower of flaming debris. In the long term it means that all of human life will soon end if they don’t figure out how to stop this fucking thing.
And Roy just might be crucial to doing that. Much to his probable shock (though he’s not the kind of guy to show that outwardly), he’s called in and informed that the surges seem to be coming from the Lima Project, a search for extra-terrestrial life led by his famous father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, BATMAN FOREVER). Though his pops disappeared around Neptune 16 years ago, now they’re telling him they think he’s still alive and causing this with his anti-matter and that Roy may be uniquely qualified to talk him down.
That’s alot to take in: your dead dad is still alive, also your dead dad might have gone nuts and could end all of human civilization, also we’re counting on you to save said human civilization by going on a secret mission to Mars to communicate with him. But you’re a pro, you can deal with it.
He seems to think it’s bullshit. Dad couldn’t be alive. Also he’s offended by the premise, because he’s always lived in the shadow of his father’s legendary heroism. We see it throughout the movie. Other astronauts find out whose son he is and treat him with reverance.
They team him with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, LOCK UP), who knew his dad way back. He’s kind of a shaggy, counter-cultural eccentric, a little like Sutherland’s character in KELLY’S HEROES. He seems like an odd choice for space travel but you know, they suit up and strap into the rocket and… wait a minute, this is a commercial flight. Roy pays $100 for a blanket.
And they get to the moon and it’s an airport. The first thing I really loved about this movie is this world it takes place in. Obviously since there’s commercial space travel it’s further along than THE MARTIAN, a movie that’s technically science fiction but barely feels futuristic. But it’s similar in that everything seems extrapolated from existing technology without any exaggeration for cinematic flair purposes. Everything seems practical, utilitarian. I didn’t notice one thing that seemed designed to look cool. Even the space suits just look like space suits – they resist the temptation to give them sleeker helmets. The bases are very industrial, bland and a little dirty, but not exaggeratedly so. They have “comfort rooms” with projections on the wall to calm you, but instead of being smooth and clean they seem kind of thrown together – the surface of the wall is glued on a little wrinkly. They must’ve had some grunt assemble this from a kit they had rolled up in storage on the ship. Perfection wasn’t an option.
The other thing I loved is that it’s kind of a spy movie! It’s about a military guy who gets sent on a clandestine mission, taking commercial flights from country to country (or in this case planet to planet), some of it hostile territory, meeting with assets, hiding his intentions, unsure of who to trust, getting secret messages, being attacked by pirates, being betrayed, being disavowed, having to improvise, having to kill, including innocent people who are in the way of the mission, having to believe the ends justifies the means.
(I mean, he has a pretty good argument that it does. This is all of humanity he’s trying to save here, not a specific country or ideology.)
I’m not saying it’s a James Bond movie. Not at all. It feels more like the movies that seem to have heavily researched the spycraft and the locations and the different factions involved – except in this place they get to make all that up. It’s mostly pretty subdued and then all the sudden it’ll flair up and make your heart start pounding. One great scene starts out just getting transported to another facility on a moonbuggy and it turns into a space version of getting attacked by insurgents. Amazing.
That was what I dug most about the movie, but I don’t think it’s why Gray made it. The space intrigue is all just a backdrop for a story about relationships and emotions. Project Lima is a stand-in for any profession or calling that a dad spent more time on than his family. It’s just a very exaggerated version where your dad went all the way to Neptune and never came home to play catch with you because he refused to sanction the buffoonery of giving up on talking to aliens. Roy downplays how scarred he is from this abandonment, but we see its effects in his emotional distance from his wife (Liv Tyler, having to stay on earth and be sad again like in ARMAGEDDON).
You know sometimes these movies about parents hit me hard because of my own experiences. I thought this might be a crier for me because of the dad stuff, but it didn’t really click with me emotionally. I don’t think that’s necessarily any weakness of the drama, it’s just that having a workaholic dad or living up to a dad’s greatness are not my issues.
It also strikes me as kind of funny that there’s a whole subgenre now – I’ll call it the astro-intimacy epic until I come up with a better term – of space travel movies that are really Very Serious Dramas about relationships or loss. They include INTERSTELLAR, GRAVITY and FIRST MAN, and they have kind of a cousin in “woman trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials from earth but really it’s about losing their family members” movies CONTACT and ARRIVAL. Something about the vastness of space contrasted with our deepest interior wounds seems real fuckin deep to directors who try to make big budget studio FX movies for grownups.
One advantage of a movie that takes place in actual space instead of STAR WARS space: actual space is fucking terrifying. I realized from watching this that there’s nothing scarier than the idea of drifting from your ship during a spacewalk, floating further and further away with nothing to grab onto or push off of, because you are literally flying into nothingness. You know what, I don’t think I’m gonna become an astronaut after all.
I definitely enjoyed AD ASTRA more as a cool movie than as the moving experience it’s intended as, but that’s still a recommendation. Gray employs topnotch immersive filmatism (glad it stuck around long enough for me to catch it on the big screen), it has a feeling of verisimilitude as opposed to standard drummed up sci-fi bombast, and the performances are all excellent. Obviously Cliff Booth is gonna remain my favorite Pitt performance this year, but he’s also very good at this highly competent, tightly-wound guy trying to keep it all inside during the most difficult job of his life. I also thought the two SPACE COWBOYS, Jones and particularly Sutherland, really took their fairly small characters the extra mile. Both of those guys are always gonna be good, but neither of them play it exactly how I’d expect.
I was also happy when Ruth Negga (LOVING, WARCRAFT) showed up, and Kimberly Elise (SET IT OFF) is in there too, and there’s a random cameo by Natasha Lyonne (BLADE: TRINITY) playing a very Natasha Lyonney desk worker on Mars. Why not?
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.