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“Ad Astra” Per Verba Omnium

Ad Astra!

If his space soliloquies mend just one broken father/son relationship out there, then they were worth it. Did they, though?

In the grand, 21st-century tradition of Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and First Man comes another tale of an A-lister shot into space with a massive budget both in-story and in reality. Honorable mention goes to Duncan Jones’ Moon, which had to make do with a fraction of the cash but was more relatable than at least two of those tentpoles.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Thirty years ago in the near future, world-famous astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) participated in a long-term program to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. The Lima Project took him and his crew out to Neptune, where something went wrong and all contact with Earth ceased after a few last jarring communiques. Everyone back at home base assumed they’d turned into an Event Horizon sequel and gave them up for dead. Neptune isn’t the kind of place where space police can simply veer by for a wellness check.

Fast-forward to the film’s present: mysterious, destructive power surges have begun emanating from McBride’s last known location, flooding the entire solar system, disrupting technologies, and causing massive calamities and casualties wherever Earthlings are depending on their computers and gadgets the most. The space authorities send out the call to the one man they believe can save the day: Brad Pitt. As steadfast hero Roy McBride, he followed in his deadbeat space dad’s footsteps and became an accomplished astronaut in his own right. Now it’s up to him to journey from Earth to Neptune and see exactly what the heck went wrong. He’ll have to hunt down the real killers responsible for everything and stop the surges, and/or just maybe he’ll have to tell a cranky, senile, murderous old coot to knock it off.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Liv Tyler is the Concerned Wife back on Earth, bitter because they’re separated and she’s reduced to being a symbol of like-father-like-son family neglect. She gets to talk in exactly one scene, and it’s just an email video lecturing Pitt for letting his job turn him into a deadbeat space husband. Donald Sutherland is a veteran astronaut with wisdom and Deep Throat intel to pass on. Ruth Negga (Preacher, Agents of SHIELD) is a Mars outpost middle-manager.

Other spacefarers along the way include John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), LisaGay Hamilton (The Practice), and Russian Doll‘s Natasha Lyonne, who seems to have filmed her one (1) scene without changing out of her Orange is the New Black uniform.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Sometimes the metaphorical distance between father and son can feel like the physical distance from Earth to Neptune
  • Even if it turns out we’re all alone in the universe, at least we still have each other, unless we throw each other away
  • Future space living will still have selfish men squabbling over space property rights and executing space covert ops
  • Having a big dream is cool, but what isn’t cool is pursuing your dream at the expense of the family that loves you and needs you, like when that fanatical jerk Richard Dreyfuss abandoned Teri Garr and their kids in Close Encounters of the Third Kind because he got brainwashed into super-loving aliens

Compared to other space fare name-checked above, Ad Astra is by no means a crowd-pleasing action-adventure film. Pitt sustains a contemplative mood from beginning to end, pausing his lamentations only for the occasional struggle for the sake of the film’s biorhythms before he resumes pontificating. Roy McBride is a few parsecs away from the happy-go-lucky Cliff Booth of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both men have a job to do; one is much more sanguine about theirs than the other.

Some of that solemnity comes from the environments he travels through. The worlds of Ad Astra are lived-in and worn down, what space civilization would look like if it had been around for decades and no one felt obligated to keep everything shiny and EPCOT-like anymore. Space airlines gouge passengers extra bucks for simple amenities. Work hallways have crisis counseling hotline flyers pinned to their walls. An increased hiring need for space pilots may mean a less rigorous vetting process, so it’s possible the occasional coward might slip through and get a job they can’t handle. Wall-size screens show Earth nature videos to relax dwellers and distract from the isolated blackness that passes for skies. Like Blade Runner 2049, automated psych screenings can tell when you’re lying to yourself.

Scientific advancements have clearly been made since our time. Rockets can execute perfect vertical landings. Flight time from the Moon to Mars is 19 days, roughly 106,000 MPH — four times the speed of Apollo 10. A connecting flight to Neptune reaches six times Apollo 10. And yes, that means there are space layovers. Humanity’s jump from air travel to spaceflight brought with it many of the same inconveniences. The joy of space is largely gone. Now it’s just another set of workaday jobs with lousy commutes.

It’s just as well. Even if everything looked awesome and Max Richter’s meditative score were all brassy fanfares, Our Hero wouldn’t notice anyway. He’s a consummate space professional who’s gotten used to it all, and he’s transfixed by the question of whether his emotionally and astronomically distant dad really is dead or if he’s simply turned into a grizzled space prospector, oblivious to the irony of him begging hypothetical aliens to JUST TALK TO ME while his son pleads the same to him.

Nitpicking? Part of me hates the idea of watching space being taken for granted. Maybe if in reality we were out there so much that being jaded about it were a societal norm, I might be okay with it, albeit unaware of my own loss of wonder. Seeing a civilization that achieved our barely requited dream hundredfold, only to subvert it all into an extension of the ordinary and easily reachable, is a bit dashing to the hopes. It’s a glummer, resigned view of our future in space, quotidian bordering on pedestrian. It doesn’t help that space is largely relegated to a handful of fleeting establishing shots (pretty if you don’t blink), while most of the rest confines the scenery to humanity’s tiny boxes and its inadequate windows.

While the settings are hardly a popcorn-flick playground, Roy McBride also isn’t a naive viewpoint character who’s here to show us how and why our minds should be blown by anything we’re seeing. Whereas First Man gave us an inscrutable Neil Armstrong who gave viewers the silent treatment and fiercely protected any and all inner thoughts, McBride won’t shut up. His Blade Runner narration has a certain forlorn poetry to it at times, infused with every ounce of gravitas that the 55-year-old Pitt can bench-press, but if you tune out some of his longer passages, you get the impression his melancholy monologues are overtly trying to distract from the complete lack of cinematic motion or visual engagement around him. I’d be curious to know if they were in the screenplay’s early drafts or tacked on later after some focus group got fidgety.

There’s one spot in particular when, after twenty minutes of introspection and a serene interplanetary trip, it feels as though a studio exec pointed at that page of the screenplay and said, “Right about here, there should be a big moon pirate battle.”

On another note of jarring tonalities, I’ve recently started playing Dead Space on my old PS3, and one sequence reminded of it so much that I laughed when I wasn’t supposed to.

If you’ve already seen it or don’t mind spoilers, Esquire has an interesting interview about the plausibility of the various science aspects, many of which passed muster but a few of which would require imaginary new inventions to hold together.

So what’s to like? My relationship with my own deadbeat dad followed a very different arc, so admittedly I suffered a bit of disconnect from Pitt’s wounded soul-searching. My weirdness notwithstanding, longtime fans of his should at the very least check out Ad Astra for how well he wears his maturity, especially those who most sympathize with his parental issues and the chasm they’ve left in his heart.

Though the lively set pieces are a minority, they’re expertly crafted when they do eventually pop in and, well, really pop. The opening disaster on the (fictional) International Space Antenna wastes no time in raising the stakes with peril high above Earth and beyond its atmosphere, with more than a few unsettling echoes of 9/11. Among the scariest bits is a digression for a brief rescue mission aboard a lost craft that if nothing else delivers something we’ve never seen in a serious space film before, because some creatures you never expect to have to fight in space. Also breaking new ground for mainstream cinema, strictly speaking, is the grand finale, in which we’re treated to the closest possible perspective on Neptune’s rings.

Those effective shocking moments are all the more startling because they’re in such stark contrast to the rest, which is otherwise absolutely not a rousing sci-fi epic. The deeply low-key resonance reminded me every two minutes of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, another heavily narrated film containing both the vastness of space and Brad Pitt, though that one’s artistic objectives were less literal and even more symbolic than Ad Astra‘s.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Ad Astra end credits, though the list of thanked source materials included an intriguing phrase that caught my eye: “modified Copernicus Sentinel data”. My puzzled ignorance led me down a rabbit hole of learning more about the Copernicus Programme, one of the European Union’s major space-tech projects that somehow never gets mentioned in my everyday American media. Who knew. Besides Europeans, I mean.

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