By John H. Foote
Science fiction works best, I think, when it reaches far beyond the mere expectations of the given narrative. When small, intimate moments with the characters, or a visual sequence take us deeper into the film than we thought possible.
The extraordinary star child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the haunting loneliness of Solaris (1972), the breathtaking goodbye in E. T. : The Extraterrestrial (1982), Jodie Foster seeing the vastness of space, weeping “they should have sent a poet”, knowing her words can never fully explain the beauty and wonder of what she sees in Contact (1997) are but a handful of examples of film moments exploring the miracles of space. What is out there? Are we truly alone? I do not believe we are, but that is a whole other discussion.
Ad Astra, the brilliant, dazzling new film from James Grey, dares often throughout its narrative, emerging a stunning film experience from one of our most gifted filmmakers. There are echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) throughout the film, the journey upriver to Cambodia transplanted to the stars and beyond Jupiter. Though never heard or said, the words “terminate with extreme prejudice” came to my mind often. Too often.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut we encounter in the opening, heart-stopping scene. When a wave through space causes a massive tower to shift a group of astronauts sending them hurtling to earth. The only one who remains calm is McBride, whose heart beat never rises above 80 beats per minute in the most dire circumstances. These shock waves hurtling through space injuring and killing people seem to be coming from Jupiter, and appear to be the brainchild of Roy’s father, himself a revered astronaut lost in space 30 years ago. Believing only Ray can talk sense into his renegade father, he is sent on a long mission into deep space to stop his father from doing the harm he is apparently doing.
Roy takes the mission but as he moves through space he gets the feeling the government has not told him everything he needs to know about his father. He remembers Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) as a hard working, good man who instilled in him a calm, and a decency with which he tries to live his life. How could he be responsible for deaths? For turning on all of mankind? As he soars to the heavens his journey takes him into his own past, to his relationship with a father he thought long dead. How could a loving father turn his back on his planet, his family, his son? What happened to him to bring about this action? Is he truly causing the massive, deadly waves of energy through space and if so, why?
The journey through space is haunting, with a pit stop on the moon bringing some much needed action and humour to the film. A bouncing lunar race had me thinking of Mad Max in space, while the colonization was bizarre.
Brad Pitt is having quite a year for himself. His handsome features have never been used to greater advantage, his eyes search the vastness of apace for answers he might never get, the tiny wrinkles around his eyes are now more prominent, his beauty has faded, becoming something more substantial, more grounded. His work as an actor has always been very good to exceptional, exploding into movies as J. D. In Thelma and Louise (1991), remaining a major star ever since, but like Paul Newman growing as an actor right before our eyes. In his best work, Twelve Monkeys (1995), Seven (1995), the extraordinary Fight Club (1999), his menacing outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), Moneyball (2011), Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon Time in Hollywood (2019), he has slipped easily under the skin of the characters he was portraying, perhaps too easily, because only in the last year is Pitt being recognized as a great actor. He is superb as Roy, ever watchful, intelligent, awed by space but not so much it causes distraction from his job. At this writing Pitt is the front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Tarantino’s heroic stuntman Cliff, but he might jump into the Best Actor race for this film. Both haunting and haunted, he is compelling and unforgettable.
Donald Sutherland reminds us of the great character actor he is with a wonderful cameo as an old buddy of Roy’s dad, Ruth Negga is quiet and stoic as a woman who has reason to hate Roy’s father, and the towering Tommy Lee Jones is everything we expect his father to be, and not.
James Gray has quietly become a truly gifted filmmaker over the last twenty five years. The Yards (2000) was a gritty Lumet like drama that felt like great seventies cinema; Two Lovers (2008) brought out the finest and most intense work of Gwyneth Paltrow’s career, superb opposite an equally great Joaquin Phoenix; The Immigrant (2013) was beloved by critics, as was his epic odyssey The Lost City Of Z (2017). Here he proves he can handle a huge studio film loaded with star power and great effects, as he brings his vision to the picture. Feeling sometimes like a film helmed by Terrence Malick or Kubrick, Coppola, even Spielberg, Ad Astra, which means struggling to the stars, is a soaring, awe inspiring work. Gray captures the overwhelming scope of the universe in all its starry vistas, but his greatest exploration is into the heart of Roy, who even with his calm exterior cannot mask the storm raging within.
One of the years very best films.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.