Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Adventure/Drama/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Greg, isn’t To the Moon, Alice an iconic expression in television lore?
Yes, and so is To the Moon and Back. Let’s see what Brad Pitt can do on Mars that Matt Damon could not.
In the “near future”, we meet Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), the astronaut son of celebrated legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared during a Neptune mission 16 years earlier. A mysterious energy surge from Neptune almost kills Roy, and US Space Command officials inform Roy that his father Cliff may still be alive.
Roy travels to moon base alpha where he is to get a jump-jet-rocket to Mars with a final destination of Neptune. It’s not long before there’s a moon-car-chase that Roy barely survives. On the way to Mars, his ship encounters a distressed ship with Baboons (yes, Baboons) running amok. Still they soldier on. On Mars, Roy sends a heart-felt radio message to his father on Neptune, but there’s no reply. The highers-up decide the mission is bust and cancel it. But Roy is told that there’s a dark reason for all this and he steals aboard the ship bound for Neptune to blow up his father’s satellite.
Ad Astra is proof that Brad Pitt has competed the transition from Hollywood’s pretty boy to one of its best actors. Pitt stole the show from Leonardo de Caprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and here in Ad Astra he displays a daring new side to his expanding acting range. If in Hollywood Pitt played a character who was open, brash, and demonstrative, here in Astra Pitt’s Roy McBride is closed, suffering, and emotionally stunted. Roy’s dark side offers ample opportunity for a Heart of Darkness-like journey of self-discovery and transformation.
Given this film’s parallels to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, I’m beginning to believe there is an important archetypal journey on display here that taps into something psychologically powerful. Yes, it’s a hero journey, but this archetypal quest may be a delicious subcategory of the Campbellian journey. In all three of these stories, the hero is sent to retrieve an unhinged, legendary icon. The trek is characterized by its length, darkness, danger, and mystery. The unhinged icon is eventually found and is even more volatile and disturbed than expected. The icon dies in a strange and surprising way, and our hero returns home empty-handed yet transformed by the experience.
I wonder if it is no coincidence that the two modern versions of this archetypal story have taken place during two of our nation’s most volatile presidencies – Nixon in 1970 (Apocalypse Now) and Trump in 2019 (Ad Astra). Yes, Ad Astra takes place in the “near future”, but audiences today can relate to the need to unseat a deeply troubled leader from power. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Roy McBride is at the center of this story, not his fallen father. Roy’s journey to retrieve his father is deeply healing. He comes to terms with his abuse as a child and his separation from his wife. This archetypal journey may be what we’re all called to embark on when there is personal healing work to be done. Perhaps more importantly, this type of journey involves the healing of society, too.
Yeah, I thought this movie sucked, too. But in all seriousness, I got the feeling Pitt is trying to ride the coattails of the much better The Martian. But without all that sciencey nonsense. The outer space drama looks more suited to a Fast and Furious movie rather than science fiction. I’m still baffled by a ship of baboons. And how is it that Roy must swim through a subterranean Martian river to get to the Neptune-bound rocket? In fact, this film felt a lot like an old maritime story set in outer space. The events seem more like a man traveling from island to island looking for his looney father.
The ending message was actually pretty good, despite the fact that the rest of the movie didn’t support the conclusion. Roy’s father has been searching for intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy. And he successfully investigated every M-Type planet out there. But none had intelligent life. So, this drove the man mad and he killed his team rather than admit we were alone in the universe. But what he didn’t see was the innumerable number of life-sustaining planets that humanity could live on. In his final thoughts, Roy tells us that his father couldn’t see the opportunity because he was so single-mindedly intent on his quest – that an alternative was never visible to him. (insert video of gorilla walking amongst ball players)
Ad Astra is 2019’s great space epic. For me, Greg, this movie is every bit as good as The Martian. Matt Damon’s potatoes are Brad Pitt’s baboons — an observation that never in my life did I think I would make.
So yeah, Ad Astra rocked for me. Brad Pitt shines in his role as an emotionally stunted astronaut who needs the hero’s journey to undergo much-needed healing for himself and for his society. The CGI effects in this film are exceptional – I felt like I was really on the moon during the lunar chase scene. But let there be no doubt that this movie is not for everyone. It is a bit slow-paced, especially for a 2019 audience that may be expecting or needing nonstop action and explosions to be entertained. I was very happy letting this expansive plot unfold in a methodical, surprising way. I give Ad Astra 4 Reels out of 5.
As I’ve mentioned, this type of hero’s journey may be a psychologically potent subcategory of Joseph Campbell’s larger hero journey. The idea of needing to eliminate and retrieve a dangerous, unhinged “hero” is fascinating and appropriate to today’s current political times. I give Roy McBride 4 Hero points out of 5.
The message of this movie is a message of fulfilling obligations and doing what we need to do to heal ourselves from past hurts. Our hero Roy McBride learns that he cannot run away from his personal issues with his father or with his wife. The journey toward eliminating a sore spot from his past is just what Roy needs to become psychologically whole again. This movie invites us all to go on this healing journey. I give this movie 4 Message points out of 5.
Ad Astra suffers from many ills, not the least of which is that I had to look up the title in Wikipedia before watching it. I hate to do research before I watch a movie. At any rate, this film seems more like an ‘atonement with the father’ epic penned by a screenwriter with unresolved daddy issues. I can barely find anything to appreciate about this long-winded, shortsighted film. No soup for you, but 1 Reel out of 5.
Roy McBride is on a Odyssey-like journey to find his father and resolve his differences with him. This is the stuff of literary fiction, not so much a feature-length film. This is a story of internal conflict and so there’s a ton-o-internal dialog. In fairness to the writers, that’s a hard thing to present on the big screen. But this is a story of healing for Roy and while I didn’t like the delivery mechanism, I did appreciate the hero’s arc. 3 out of 5 Heroes for Roy.
And the message that we often don’t see the forest for the trees is delivered at the last minute without much support from the rest of the film. I give this message 2 out of 5 Message Points.