REMEMBER 1979's horrifying journey into the heart of darkness, Apocalypse Now? That award-winning Francis Ford Coppola film followed a river journey from Vietnam into Cambodia undertaken by Captain Willard, who was on a secret mission to find Colonel Kurtz, a renegade US Army Special Forces officer accused of murder and who was presumed insane.
James Gray's Ad Astra (Latin “through struggle to the stars”) is Apocalypse Now in space, and looks at a courageous father and son who outdo Neil Armstrong and fly deeper into the cosmos, and at the same time wonder if they may be running away from themselves.
A beautifully crafted adventure from the director of The Lost City Of Z, Ad Astra is an inspiring film about tough guys and their vulnerability. With a fast-paced narrative, a buggy chase that looks like Mad Max: The Road Warrior on the moon, and a vision of the galaxy that is full of shocks and surprises, it is a deep, thought-provoking space odyssey.
Set in the future, “a time of hope and conflict”, the story begins with Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride enjoying work high above the Earth. Standing at the edge of the International Space Antenna — a towering beacon for extra-terrestrial life that stretches all the way from the atmosphere to the stars — Roy is an acclaimed astronaut and a dedicated member of the US Space Force.
He enjoys his work because it isolates him from the rest of the world, most of all his unhappy wife Eve (Liv Tyler in a hardly spoken cameo role). And like his equally decorated father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous astronaut who disappeared 16 years ago while navigating the furthest reaches of the solar system, Roy is a courageous man who is terrified of opening himself up to other people.
A massive electrical surge suddenly causes the antenna to go haywire, and everyone standing on it is sent tumbling down.
Fortunately, Roy saves the day while repairing a rig the height of seven skyscrapers. He rides the impact of the power surge, free-falling downwards but successfully gets hold of the main switch and shuts off the voltage in the stunning yet terrifying opening sequence.
It turns out that the surge could be linked to Clifford, who disappeared while undertaking Project Lima, which was aimed at proving the existence of aliens. Roy's superiors believe he may still be alive, and that the destructive force that is radiating towards Earth will soon grow powerful enough to destroy all human life.
Roy’s is promptly sent on a mission, to secretly bring a nuclear weapon to Neptune (where his father reportedly went missing) and persuade or coerce the old man to come home.
He sets off on an initially mesmerising but later harrowing voyage from the earth to the moon, Mars and finally Neptune. Constantly subjected to psychological evaluations, Roy is forced to say that he “will not rely on anyone or anything” and that he “will not be vulnerable.”
Even though Clifford was hardly there for Roy in his formative years, the veteran space traveller spent enough time to teach his son the values of hard work and emotional self-control. These virtues shaped Roy into the man that he is today, and gave him all the strength he can muster for his soon-to-be harrowing journey.
Roy's emotional blankness gradually begins to disappear as the truth of his father’s fate dawns on him, along with a long-held suspicion that his superiors have not been telling him the whole story about his father’s disappearance.
Pitt has never looked more handsome than in this superbly photographed adventure. The camera traces the cracked surfaces of planets with the same meticulousness that it travels across Roy’s finely chiselled face, lapping up the wrinkles around his eyes, and the occasional stubble on his chin.
Ad Astra is a virtual one-man show from Pitt, whose Roy literally narrates most of the story up, close and personal. Pitt delivers perhaps his best performance of the year, giving the reserved and withdrawn Roy an intensity that masks a lot of emotion. It is a tricky role, but Pitt does a great job making sure that the audiences both relate to and root for him.
He is at his best in a key scene where Roy breaks protocol to read a personal letter to his father. It is extremely heartbreaking and will move many to tears.
Gray’s details and characters are very good. Donald Sutherland has an enigmatic cameo as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of Roy’s father, who has been abruptly called in for guidance. Ruth Negga is excellent as the intense Nasa officer Helen Lantos, who has personal reasons for hating Clifford, and this is her reason for wanting to help Roy.
Aside from the dramatic opening sequence, there is a gripping encounter with a nightmarish, man-eating baboon attack in a spacecraft that had been used for animal research.
The scene when Roy flies commercial to the moon on Virgin Atlantic could have been ridiculous, but it is one of the very few moments where audiences are able to sit back and laugh. There is a Subway sandwich shop in outer space, likewise a DHL delivery shop and gigantic escalators, virtually transplanted from New York City. It looks as if the wonders of space have been replaced by the crass commercialism of Earth.
Pitt's performance anchors the whole movie. Roy is a calm centre with the honest, boyish charm of an intergalactic Robert Redford. He nails it with his one-man performance, and Jones holds his own as the emotionally wounded and somewhat insane absentee parent who appears to be "happy in his new home".
Ad Astra is a spectacular picture. Besides having ample shades of Apocalypse Now, with Roy making a terrifying upriver (or rather interstellar) journey to “terminate the command” of a sadistic patriarch, it revels in the best traditions from some of its most awesome predecessors such as Interstellar, Space Odyssey and of course the Star Wars and Star Trek series.
This film is beautiful, from the glistening cinematography to the seamless visual effects. Everything in it looks so real.
And propelled by one of Pitt's finest performances, it is a thrilling and thought-provoking journey through the great vastness above us.
DIRECTED BY James Gray
STARRING Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, John Finn, Kimberly Elise, Bobby Nish, Lisa Gay Hamilton, John Ortiz, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Natasha Lyonne
DURATION 150 minutes