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Ad Astra (2019)::rating::4::rating::4

If The Martian served as a sci-fi riff on Cast Away (and Crusoe before it), then Ad Astra takes the brainy brawn of Apocalypse Now (and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and sends it hurtling into the frigid heliosphere.  For Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), the Solar System is his Mekong Delta, a treacherous expanse that offers equal doses of tedium and terror.  McBride narrates his story with the bleary resignation of a man who doesn’t know whether his true self lies at the beginning of this journey or the end of it.  He only knows that the current must carry him forward.

The key difference between Astra and Apocalypse lies in McBride’s ultimate target:  His Colonel Kurtz, the decorated hero who’s wandered a million miles from decorum, is also his father.  Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was once a brilliant astronaut who pushed the boundaries of space travel before vanishing into the void.  Roy, who lives with bottled anger at the father who valued the Great Nothing above his own family, also becomes an astronaut, perhaps in the hope of some personal validation.

As the story begins, violent energy flares threaten the entire Solar System.  Thousands die, and destruction is in the billions of dollars.  At a top secret briefing, Roy is informed that not only is his dad still alive, but he might be responsible for the catastrophe.  It seems Clifford, who was dispatched into space decades ago to contact alien life, might’ve taken to his mandate with psychotic abandon.  Roy agrees to make the long trek to confront his father, mostly for the personal reasons he keeps buried inside.

Along this journey up the celestial river, Roy encounters self-contained pockets of perilous adventure:  Space pirates, a ship in distress, random energy surges, and more.  Mostly though, Roy sifts through the flotsam of his own thoughts.  Pitt’s narration echoes Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now:  Eerie, detached, and weirdly soothing, his voice endows the entire movie with a vibe that’s both cerebral and poetic.  It’s almost a tranquilizing agent between the big action scenes.

Ad Astra is an incredible film to experience.  The special effects are jaw-dropping, and they combine with an authentic-sounding script to put in the viewer in space with Roy.  Like some of the best space movies, Astra captures how the cosmos is bogglingly infinite and intensely claustrophobic at the same time:  Astronauts are dependent on spacesuits, tethered to oxygen tanks, and stuck in tin capsules.  One mishap and death will be cold and quick.  This movie hits and holds that underlying tension on a level not seen since Gravity.

Where that film showcased Sandra Bullock’s endless watchability, this one is a testament to the slow-burn of Brad Pitt’s star power.  Without his quiet confidence, it’s doubtful this movie would be nearly as compelling.  His work here is a master class in nuance and muted fury.  Other famous faces show up, but they don’t have a whole lot to do.  As Roy’s lost love, Liv Tyler is more symbol than actual character.  Her dialogue is entirely about his absence from her life, while he fumes about his father’s absence from his.  Donald Sutherland supplies a few scenes of crinkly, twinkly character-acting.  His role really exists to give Pitt someone interesting to talk to for the movie’s middle stretch.  Jones is also underused:  Like Brando in Apocalypse, Clifford mainly serves a source of immense dread for the main character.

For all its big action and computer effects, Ad Astra is a surprisingly wordy, meditative experience.  Audiences may be shocked–hopefully in a good way–by the thoughtful, meticulous drama that hides in plain sight.  Superficially, this movie is about the search for life out there and the galactic frontier, but something else lies beneath all that:   The complex, unknowable bond between fathers and sons, and the basic, human need for emotional closure.  This is an uncommonly good sci-fi drama.

122 min.  PG-13.

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