"Ad Astra" a riveting, mythic space-quest
James Gray’s new space adventure “Ad Astra” blasts Brad Pitt off across the solar system on a quest to stop a mysterious power surge that threatens to destroy all life in the known universe.
Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut in the U.S. Space Command who, in one of the most riveting and beautiful-to-look-at opening scenes in recent memory, is nearly killed when a power surge creates explosions on a giant space antenna that sends him plummeting back to Earth.
Decades earlier, his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, led an expedition into the outer reaches of our solar system on a quest to discover intelligent alien life. 30 years ago, that expedition went offline and was never heard from again.
Now, McBride is recruited for a highly classified mission, to stop the power surge by any means necessary. McBride, who’s always believed his father to be dead, is told his father is likely still alive and may be responsible for the power surges threatening the universe. His mission is to reach Mars by way of a lunar base and send a secure laser transmission in an effort to reach his father and stop the universal threat.
What follows is essentially a road movie in space, a hero’s quest of mythic proportions. As Pitt’s character adventures across the solar system, he drives inevitably toward atonement with his father. As Joseph Campbell put it in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” his treatise on comparative mythology, “the god outgrown becomes a life devouring demon.”
Here the father figure is visually and audibly compared to a god numerous times – every other character is constantly talking about what a legend he is, and he even sports a large beard. McBride literally floats up to him once they finally meet, an image that calls to mind an ascension to heaven.
The allusions to myth and psychological development are a bit obvious at times, particularly when the elder McBride repeats over and over to his son “you have to let me go,” but the film is still dazzling and moving enough to justify it.
The strangest aspect of this film is the cast. Every actor does a wonderful job, but the choice of casting certain actors feels almost like oddly obscure stunt casting.
Anyone familiar with Clint Eastwood’s 2000 film “Space Cowboys,” about a group of retired geriatric pilots being sent into space will recall the Tommy Lee Jones’ character’s Christ like sacrifice to save mankind.
They may also recall that in “Space Cowboys” Donald Sutherland plays one of the best friends and astronaut partners, and in “Ad Astra,” Donald Sutherland is cast as Tommy Lee Jones’ best-friend and astronaut partner.
Coincidence? Possibly. Until you realize that Loren Dean who played the young, inept astronaut who screws things up in “Space Cowboys” plays almost the exact same character in “Ad Astra.”
Then of course we have the casting of Liv Tyler as Pitt’s wife back on Earth. Her character hardly has any lines, so why cast an actress of that caliber? Well in the 1998 film “Armageddon” she plays the daughter of a man who sacrifices himself to save the Earth, and the love interest of her father’s young protégé played by Ben Affleck, both of whom are sent into space on a mission to save the Earth from total destruction.
The parallels feel too many to be accidental. It seems that director James Gray is paying intentional homage to blockbuster space films of the past, which feels more like an inside joke than a marketing ploy and is strangely endearing.
Where “Ad Astra” truly shines is in the unique vantage points it gives of Earth and the Moon. Audiences aren’t used to seeing the Earth from the thermosphere, where the giant space antenna looks out on the Earth like a camera submerged half in the air and half underwater. The framing of the moon as a sort of wild-west frontier of violence and industry is also unique and surprising, which lent the film a feeling of freshness and vitality.
While the script isn’t perfect, and the audience is subjected to a few plot holes and some clunky dialogue, it’s still a riveting adventure about father’s and son’s and how letting go of the past can save our lives and the lives of those we love. It’s also a stark morality play about the truth of human existence. “Ad Astra” declares loud and clear that our relationships are what matter most in life, because in the end, all we really have is each other.