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Review: James Gray's sci-fi epic 'Ad Astra' fuses the emotional and intellectual to dazzling effect

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Somber, stirring, ridiculous and just shy of sublime, James Gray's speculative fiction "Ad Astra" opens with a vision of a man falling to Earth. He's an astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), and he's perched on an International Space Antenna -- basically a very, very high-altitude ladder, with the world spreading out like a vast blue-green carpet beneath him. It's an impossibly serene and beautiful moment that is disrupted by a series of sudden explosions, as shock waves surge through the antenna and send Roy tumbling toward what looks like near-certain doom.

Miraculously, he survives the fall, thanks to a parachute and a gift for staying calm in even the riskiest situations. In this he resembles his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary space explorer who vanished decades ago on Neptune. Now top government officials are whispering that Clifford is alive, if not exactly well: Those electrical storms, which are wreaking havoc worldwide, appear to have originated on Neptune, and it's likely that Clifford is behind it all, exacting a strange kind of revenge on Earth and potentially the entire solar system.

It's richly ironic that Roy may have been placed in a life-or-death situation by the same father who gave him the skills necessary to survive it. As Roy tells us, in thick streams of voice-over that suggest a Zen philosopher by way of a film-noir private eye, it is Clifford to whom he owes his strong work ethic and his love for space travel. He's too much in denial to point out that Clifford is also the reason he's so emotionally distanced from the rest of humankind, as embodied by a briefly seen and even more briefly heard ex-wife (Liv Tyler, in a thankless role).

The degree to which our parents shape us, for better and inevitably for worse, is at the heart of "Ad Astra." Written by Gray and Ethan Gross, this is a moody, mournful story of fathers and sons that, like a lot of ambitious Hollywood science fiction, strikes a balance between a harrowing otherworldly trek and a more interior psychological journey.

Roy's superiors believe that hearing from a long-lost son might be enough to sway Clifford's conscience. And so, with some early help from Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old colleague of his dad's, Roy sets out to transmit a message to Neptune, a top-secret mission that will take him to the moon, Mars and beyond. As "Ad Astra" follows Roy toward the outer reaches of the solar system, tracing a path that superficially recalls the arc of "2001: A Space Odyssey," it becomes increasingly elastic in its play with genre, shape-shifting into an action movie, a paranoid thriller and, finally, an earnest hybrid of cosmic parable and male weepie.

Gray's command of these tonal and narrative shifts is evidence of a sensibility steeped in classical cinematic entertainments, and grounded in the belief that even a meditative, quasi-Tarkovskian space opera should deliver a good jolt every now and then. There are a few decent ones here, starting with a lunar action sequence that kicks up a lot of moon dust and suspicion, and one grisly shock that nods ever so quickly in the direction of "Alien" and its creature-feature ilk.

 

Still, it is hard not to wish that these visceral scares were more sustained and purposeful, and that they were tethered to a more coherent and rigorous vision of the future. This is less a matter of scientific accuracy -- though I eagerly await Neil deGrasse Tyson's debunking of the asteroid-surfing scene -- than of imaginative detail.

One of the pleasures of Gray's more earthbound earlier features is the sense that a highly specific milieu -- from the Russian mob enclaves of "Little Odessa" and "We Own the Night" to the South American jungles of "The Lost City of Z" -- has taken shape in the background. The fictionalized world of "Ad Astra," by contrast, emerges in bits and pieces, never feeling fully formed or taking on an imaginative life of its own.

Kevin Thompson's production design affords us striking glimpses of an alternate future reality, at times tipping the movie in the direction of satire. The moon has become a crudely commercialized dystopia surrounded by a pirate-ridden wasteland, while what we see of Mars is an underground military base equipped with brightly colored, mood-altering rooms. You wonder how these visions came to be, and Gray's patient, contemplative approach encourages that wonder. But the conceptual underpinnings are never satisfactorily addressed, reduced instead to bits of shorthand in Roy's clunky, long-winded voice-over.

But if the world building in "Ad Astra" leaves something to be desired -- as does Ruth Negga's underdeveloped role as a potential ally of Roy's -- it may be because the director's investment here is more emotional than intellectual. Where the picture really comes together is in the final stretch, in which Gray allows the sad grandiosity of his vision to flourish without apology (a development echoed by Max Richter's lovely score, which shifts from "Tron"-like electronica to more classically moving strings).

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