"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Ad Astra

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?

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 14th, 2019 at 11:46 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Ad Astra”

  1. Space has always terrified me (and like you, I don’t count Star Wars as being “in space” proper) so I can see myself really enjoying this. Thanks for the review as always.

  2. Wait, that’s what this movie is about? Why didn’t anybody tell me? If you’d have asked me if this was the kind of movie with space pirates in it, I’d have said hell no. Look at that poster. I thought it was about an astronaut going through a divorce or something. This changes everything.

  3. Wait? Ad Astra is really about grief? Did A24 produce this? :)

    I actually wanted to see this movie when it was coming out because of how ludicris a chase scene/gun fight on the moon is.

  4. Mr. M,

    I don’t think you’re going to like this one. Probably 50% of it is Brad Pitt being sad and having daddy issues, but in space. The “space pirates” are only in one scene early on, and while there are a few action or thriller scenes, most of them happen relatively early on. It’s the kind of movie you’re only going to be into if you can appreciate the setting more than the story, because they do a fantastic job of depicting space travel, but the story gets less exciting as it goes along and it blows the emotional climax.

    I dug it overall, it was my jam, but the final act tested my patience, and if it did that to me I have to imagine it will be excruciating for you.

  5. I wish I’d liked this one, but found it very boring – a character study without a defined lead character, and a science fiction movie without knowledge of science or much apparent interest in genre. There are fun throwaway pulpy elements, but they just made me realize how I’d much rather be watching a movie about Brad Pitt getting a job at the Subway restaurant on the Moon.

  6. “actual space is fucking terrifying”

    This has been my greatest fear from the first time I learned about it; the hard vacuum of space. Getting sucked out into space and simultaneously boiling and freezing and having my lungs explode, or just drifting off in an ad hoc coffin like Pandorum. The more spacesploitation that the movie is, the more likely there is a “being ejected into the vacuum of space” scene being included there is, and the more likely I’m going to experience cinematic clenched butthole syndrome. This also goes for deep sea pressurized diving drama, where people get sucked through pinholes and such. But not so much the bends, too mundane.

    Nature hates a vacuum, and so do I. This concludes my TED talk on space travel.

  7. I struggled with this one. “My father is really distant (emotionally AND metaphorically!)” isn’t necessarily what I want to spend two hours watching anyway, but even so I was pretty bored by the combination of deliberately deliberate pace, Pitt’s monotone character, and the lack of insight at the end. (SPOILERS) Pitt travels all that way to learn what he already knew the whole time: yup, Dad still doesn’t love you. And also, you know how you have accepted his death, but now it turns out he’s alive? No, he dies again. So basically… yeah, I don’t know what Pitt’s character was supposed to learn from that, but I do know that I didn’t learn anything that wasn’t clear from the first fifteen minutes or so. And the most interesting incidents felt pretty inorganic — throw in space pirates so we get some action! Throw in a zero gravity primate for some scares! Throw in Brad Pitt accidentally killing three people in a Rube Goldberg sequence so he can be alone when he encounters his dad! — and I struggled to connect them to what the movie was trying to say. Ultimately, not the movie for me.

  8. FWIW I thought Pitt was great in this. His performance is so small and subtle that when he does break out of the narrow range he spends most of the film in, it has a real impact. I just wish the story gave him a more interesting and satisfying payoff to his arc.

  9. I missed this one and HUSTLERS and a couple other great-looking movies in theaters last month, and I’m not happy about it. But look, if you want me to come to your thing, it should either be A) a horror movie or B) not in October. I don’t understand why this is so hard for people.

  10. Ad Astra and Hustlers both came out in September, chump

  11. You know better than anyone that October begins in late September.

  12. I have it on good authority that October doesn’t even end til January.

  13. I enjoyed this, and more admired it than emotionally connected with it. It’s a very Apocalypse Now and extended psychotherapy in space movie.

    That part with the animal was pretty dope too. Along with the moon pirates.

  14. Haven’t seen this yet but bravo for working “sanction the buffoonery” into your review.

  15. I read a few interview with Gray where he said this basically was a cross between APOCALYPSE NOW and 2001. The commercial space travel angle is in the 2001 movie but is expanded upon a little in the novel too. While the 2001 influence is obvious (you can’t make a film like this without making some nod to it, and I’m okay with that) but I’m surprised it took someone this long to make something so close to APOCALYPSE in space. The voice-over in this does a lot more to make you empathize with Roy, than what I felt was done with Willard’s character which was to place you directly in his head. There are similarities in the two characters though Roy’s inner turmoil is a little more transparent. Frankly I think Pitt did a better acting job than he did in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, where he brilliantly coasts along on his movie-star wattage. It’s the same thing I notice that I connect with in Clooney’s work too, that I really can be more invested if there’s more struggle and less charm. More human.

  16. Not surprised to see the APOCALYPSE NOW comparison, as the similarities are very strong, and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty inspired choice for the Colonel Kurtz role. In addition to Colonel Kurtz, Jones is a kind of Wizard of Oz — that is, a borderline mythological figure who might as well be canonized, but behind the curtain he is at this point merely a confused, tired old crackpot who’s long past all-in on his obsession with finding intelligent life.

    I like-don’t-love this film. I’m here for anything with Brad Pitt, and Jones and the rest of the cast are great, too. The film looks gorgeous, but, as Vern notes, it’s a very grounded and believable aesthetic. And I appreciate Gary’s extreme restraint. The film really owns its pace and has the courage of its conviction to force a stark choice upon the viewer — either bow to that pace, fall asleep, or walk out. Moxie!

    So, as Vern said, it looks gorgeous, is utterly competent, well-cast, terrifically acted.

    And if you’ve caught anything I’ve posted here of late, you know I’m here for the psychodrama, feels, identity issues, daddy issues, existential pondering, etc. This movie is tailor made for me.

    My main complaint is that the characters are too thin and under-developed to fully invest. Pitt is going to find Tommy Lee because daddy issues. It’s a great, restrained performance by Pitt, but it’s never fully clear how or what keeps pushing him further.

    But I love the subtlety with which it explores emotionally shut down men who are married to their jobs and their legacies — driven by single-minded obsessions and/or a very narrow and unbalanced identity where all the eggs are in one basket. Pitt and Jones tell us the story of a man who is able to break free of cultlike workaholism and another man who can’t break free of this idolatry. In addition to Colonel Kurtz, Jones is a kind of Wizard of Oz — a borderline mythological figure who might as well be canonized, behind the curtain he is at this point merely a confused, tired old crackpot who’s long past all-in on his obsession with finding intelligent life. It’s also a powerful meditation on the silly and destructive lengths people — especially well-educated STEM-type men — will go to preserve the illusion that they’re rational and not emotional.

    A lot to chew on in the film. A a bit up its own ass, for sure, but there’s even that’s right and beautiful for me to give it a solid B.

  17. Oops, getting sleepy!

    1) forgot to delete the repeat of stuff about Jones/Kurtz/Oz
    2) “enough,” not “even” that’s right.

  18. I liked this movie well enough. I will admit I was a bit bored in the theater. But it did stick with me for a few days. Some of its themes were not as easy as my first impression was. Basically…my initial reason for being let down by the ending, turned out to be what I like most about it now. Which is a rarity…that it has a slow sink into your subconscious like that.

    Basically, it was a bit of the Wizard of Oz theme Skani mentioned. At first, I was disappointed there wasn’t something cooler or weirder in the end. Not weird aliens, no psychedelic sequence. Tommy Lee Jones had not discovered alien life. But…he still discovered a lot about Neptune (in if memory serves) other information about the universe. And Brad Pitt got there.

    It’s a message of accepting the real world as it is. Some stuff about accomplishment too. But basically….isn’t getting to Neptune enough?? I can’t think of another movie like that. Subtle, and sort of the opposite of far-out…but solid.

    This was also my first James Gray movie. I hadn’t even heard of him by name before. I had heard of a few of his movies (THE YARDS I remember being pretty acclaimed when it came out) but never saw any. It is pretty strange how he snuck up like that. I am a pretty big film buff, reading about directors and such all the time…and this one snuck up on me. This one was interesting enough that I’ll seek out all his stuff at some point int the near future.

  19. Agreed, Tigger! I think the acceptance of reality piece is huge. And I do think the delusion/illusion side of the same coin is critical. We talk a lot about how people are now living in alternative realities with alternative facts (conspiracy theories, imperviousness to evidence, etc.). With both the Pitt and Jones characters, this film shows how even supremely intelligent and accomplished people can in some sense waste — misguide — their entire lives or at least large compartments and time periods.

    Now, in what sense have either of these characters — each of whom has contributed so much to extend our frontiers of spatial exploration and of knowledge acquisition — wasted or misguided their lives? In the sense that they have not really examined their assumptions, their emotions, their values. Or, if they have (Jones), there is a sense in which they have “chose poorly.” It’s not that the things they did weren’t great. It’s the notion that only they could do what they do, that what they are doing is the most important thing to do at all costs, that everything else about their lives and others’ lives comes second. That end becomes the only end, that end justifies any means, and the idea that one is actually an emotional and personal creature who is acting on the margins of a bunch of very personal and emotional experiences — cultural myths, propaganda, daddy issues, groupthink, personal insecurity and desire for immortality/legacy. Jones’s character is a beautiful, tragic distillation of what happens when a 99th percentile genius, grit, hero type is out of touch with his emotions, his insecurities, and some sense of deeper moral values. As Chris Cooper might have said, he’s allowed himself to become a malfunctioning multi-million dollar machine. When we see behind the curtain we realize that, behind all math and the data and the tech and the delusionally self-aggrandizing speechifying, this is just a tired lonely old guy who has bet everything on a single idea and just keeps doubling down into oblivion, at tremendous cost to everyone.

  20. So, it’s a film about delusional, addictive, single-minded obsession — two genius hero golden boy types both contend with it; one succumbs; one “gets woke” and breaks free. Trite melodrama and psychodrama perhaps, but pretty elementally powerful imho.

    And I do think that we see connections to the emotional shut-down-ed-ness, lack of self-awareness coming across in various ways. Honestly, for me, I see it in everything from Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism to Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness. The invitation is to wake up. Wake up to the fact that you are being manipulated and exploited by people who absolutely have the means and motivation to do so. Wake up to the fact that you are colluding in your exploitation, manipulation, and addiction by giving yourself over to systems of oppression (from Facebook to Republicanism to the erosion of civil liberties to the erosion of honest speech to the destruction of the planet). Wake up to the fact that, underneath your big words and ideas — your self-righteous Facebook screeds and tweetstorms, your zings and sick burns, and/or your beautifully worded essays — that are almost always pointed critically or contemptuously at someone or something other than yourself, underneath all that is a person who gets scared, who gets confused, who doesn’t know anything, who might have ended up on the other side of your contempt if a few things in life had gone a little differently. Basically, engage in healthy and balanced criticism of systems, processes, power structures, and of your own bullshit. See your bullshit. See where your actions don’t line up with your words. See where your righteous actions may come out of self-righteous immature ego shit. See areas of inaction where you’re failing to live up to your own high-minded rhetoric. And absolutely, see all the glossy images, fear-mongering threats, larger-than-life personalities and click-baity article titles and tweets for what they are — propaganda designed to push primal emotional buttons.

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