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USA 2019
Directed by
James Gray
123 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Ad Astra

Synopsis: Sometime in the not-too-distant future, an astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), journeys to Neptune to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) a renegade scientist who has gone AWOL in deep space and is posing a grievous threat to humanity.

Modern science fiction films tend to be very impressive technically and visually but less effective dramatically. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) come immediately to mind. James Gray’s Ad Astra tends to confirm this pattern. Thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography (he also shot Interstellar) and Kevin Thompson’s production design the film is a superb simulation of the future world of space travel that should please fans of the sci-fi genre despite some very questionable points especially to do with Roy’s heavily glossed-over return to his spaceship at the film’s end.

Dramatically however the film is less convincing. The key element here is Roy’s relationship to his father, Clifford, a space explorer extraordinaire.  In a scenario that suggests a considerable debt to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) Roy’s superiors believe that Clifford has gone rogue and hearing from his son might persuade to come in and stop causing havoc with the balance of our solar system (I’m not sure of the science involved but that is not a significant issue, broad strokes are enough) so they send him to a secure facility on the Moon and then Mars. But once there Roy realizes that they intend to terminate Clifford so Roy decides to find his father himself.  

The psychological import of the father-son relationship is laid out at length in Roy’s extensive voice-over with, in classic fashion, him coming to realize that he has been replaying the sins of his father. The meeting between them is thus the emotional climax of Roy’s journey. Yet when it does occur (and we know it will because Tommy Lee Jones has been cast in the role) it is largely a non-event (simply in terms of run-time it only lasts a few minutes).  Surely we deserved some some kind of show-down.  If nothing else it would have been nice to find out why Clifford was intent on destroying the universe. As it is ,Roy might as well be visiting his cantankerous old man in a terrestrial nursing home in order to take him for a final  outing.

Whilst more attention should have been given to that final interpersonal encounter Pitt, whose Plan B production company was one of the backers of the film and who carries most of its dramatic heft, however, gives an impressive performance as the stoically-wounded Roy but an oddly cast Jones is a distracting presence.requiring some forbearance to accept as a pioneering space scientist. Aside from a rather pointless appearance by Donald Sutherland, their roles are the only ones of significance.

Ad Astra is 80% space odyssey (the title is Latin for "To The Stars,, 20% spiritual journey. If you’re happy to accept that ratio then it’s a film worth seeing.




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