'Ad Astra': Film Review | Venice 2019

Orbits unsteadily between art film and action thriller.
9/20/2019

Brad Pitt toplines director James Gray's first foray into science fiction, playing an astronaut who travels to the far reaches of the solar system in search of his long-lost father.

There's no shortage of striking imagery in the space odyssey Ad Astra: a desolate lunar landscape, a man's plummeting to Earth like a Tarot card figure tumbling from a burning tower, the lonely gleam of a spacecraft against a fathomless field of stars. Yet of all the film's eloquent visuals, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema lights nothing with more care than Brad Pitt's eyes. Zero-gravity fistfights notwithstanding, those baby blues are where the action is. They're the movie's highest-impact special effect.

Over the slowly unfolding story of astronaut Roy McBride, the actor reveals, with each shift in his gaze, the gradual awakening of an intensely self-contained character. Like Charlie Hunnam's Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z (executive produced by Pitt), the protagonist of James Gray's new film is a man on a mission. But Roy is no obsessed believer chasing a seemingly impossible dream; he's a reluctant envoy on a top-secret assignment, a tight-lipped one-man search team seeking a national hero who's probably gone mad — "Like I have a choice," he muses bitterly.

Roy tackles more than his fair share of physical challenges — swimming an underground Martian lake, Mad Max-ing his way across the dark side of the Moon, scaling a colossal monument to optimism called the International Space Antenna — yet this is a portrayal that draws its power from stillness and close-ups. Pitt is working the minor keys to sublime effect (as he does in his exquisitely wry, career-best turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

But while less is more for the actor, that's not necessarily the case for the movie, which tends toward the obvious and often feels adrift in a suspense-free void. Writer-director Gray's handsomely crafted planet-hopping drama is by turns vividly eventful and deliberate in its uneventfulness, and it feels caught, somewhat awkwardly, between stark simplicity and violent leaps into hyperdrive. Similarly, the voiceover track that threads Roy's thoughts through the action veer between the poetic and the psychotherapeutic — sometimes bitter and incisive ("We go to work, we do our jobs, and then it's over") and frequently unnecessary ("I've been trained to compartmentalize," he points out, as if we hadn't noticed).

Ad Astra has, at times, the meditative pace of sci-fi forebear Solaris, but certainly not the narrative complexity. Stripped down to the archetypal bones, the story revolves around straightforward father-son themes of love, veneration, abandonment, fear and longing: The missing astronaut Roy seeks is none other than his dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who happens to be the American space program's most-decorated hero.

As potent as that premise is, with its Marlow-Kurtz dynamic between the narrator son and the off-the-grid father he'd long presumed dead, it plays out in a way that makes it easier to admire than to be swept up by. Perhaps because Ad Astra's genre tropes, however striking, are also familiar — a distracting bit of Gravity here, the inevitable nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey there — this episodic saga feels gussied up by them, as opposed to fully inhabiting the terrain. Lurching from one Homeric ordeal to the next, the film can be stubbornly uninvolving.

It's set in a near future when interplanetary travel is not just a thing but a crucial source of hope; other worlds might offer remedies for Earth's persistent woes (unseen, but we can imagine). The search for intelligent life has been underway at least since Clifford McBride (Jones) led the Lima Project to the outer edges of the solar system, only to disappear, along with his ship and crew. Roy was a teenager when his father went missing, and, cast in his shadow, has grown up idolizing him.

He's become an esteemed astronaut in his own right, but he feels like a hired hand. The honchos at SpaceCom, a government agency with a somewhat privatized sheen, value him for his unflappable cool. Why wouldn't they? His pulse has never topped 80, and they can't hear that angry voiceover.

Those higher-ups have reason to believe that Clifford is still alive, in the vicinity of Neptune — and not only alive but up to no good, the mastermind of diabolical deeds that are wreaking havoc with Earth's atmosphere and could destabilize the entire solar system. The cruel institutional logic by which Roy is first chosen for the mission of trying to communicate with the renegade and then unceremoniously dismissed from the assignment — his personal connection to Clifford being the reason in both cases — is the most damning aspect of the screenplay by Gray and Ethan Gross.

There's also the brutal fact that Roy has to process the shocking news about Clifford while sitting in a conference room where a handful of generals pin him to his chair with their practiced professional half-smiles. Talk about workplace dysphoria. Gray and his DP zero in on Roy's silent reaction, and Pitt's graceful acting here is wrenching in its ambivalence and constraint. A later scene, when Roy goes off-script while recording an official message to his wayward parent, packs a similar, if more transparent, punch.

Though Roy has a number of encounters on his travels from Earth to the Moon to Mars and beyond, his is essentially a solitary journey, a fact that's underscored in Van Hoytema's fluent layering of reflection and shadow, in the outstanding sound design by Gary Rydstrom, and throughout Kevin Thompson's production design, which has a lived-in, unshowy emphasis on practical, rather than digital, artistry.

Until a poignantly welcoming glimpse of Earth late in the proceedings, Roy's home planet is viewed only in terms of its sorry exports: urban congestion on the Moon, space-travel animal experimentation, a grungy Martian outpost manned by — spoiler alert! — Natasha Lyonne, by no means sorry, but weirdly out of context. There's also the occasional reminder of humanity's playful side, as when Dean Martin's crooning provides a space capsule's happy-hour soundtrack.

A number of Roy's encounters are little more than devices for dispensing information, cluing him (and us) in to the truth about his father and his ill-fated mission. However brief and pointed, they give terrific actors opportunities to punctuate the Roy-centric mood with fresh emotions and welcome friction. The indispensable Donald Sutherland delivers a beautiful mix of dire warning and rue as a retired colleague of Clifford's, and Ruth Negga is all steely, grief-fueled determination as a Mars native with a connection to the doomed Lima Project.

Jones, seen in archival video messages and a present-day sequence, is an affectingly haunted figure. In the minimally conceived role of Roy's estranged wife, the all too symbolically named Eve, Liv Tyler has little chance to make an impression but manages to do so nonetheless, in part because Gray has a knack for conveying backstory with a well-deployed shorthand of expressionistic flashback images. Much of that backstory, though, borders on cliché.

This sci-fi spin on Heart of Darkness is a self-conscious movie about a self-conscious man, a dutiful son who's increasingly aware of how out of place he feels — in the organization he works for and in his own skin. Like those figures on the Tarot card, Roy is jolted awake by a terrible fall, and it's only the first of several plunges he'll take into some sort of abyss. His long climb back is the stuff of neatly myth-tinged storytelling mechanics. In a few quietly searing sequences, though, something else happens, charged and openhearted and lightning-bolt ragged: A wounded soul's gaze illuminates the way.

Production companies: 20th Century Fox, Regency Enterprises, Bona Film Group, New Regency, Plan B, Keep Your Head, RT Features, MadRiver Pictures
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne
Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Mark Butan, Lourenço Sant'Anna, Sophie Mas, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan, Anthony Mosawi, Paul Conway, Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer
Director of photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen
Composer: Max Richter
Additional music by: Lorne Balfe
Visual effects supervisor: Allen Maris
Supervising sound editor, sound designer: Gary Rydstrom
Supervising sound editor: Brad Semenoff
Casting director: Douglas Aibel
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)

Rated PG-13, 123 minutes