Ad Astra (M)
The vast expanse of outer space is juxtaposed with the intimate and personal in this science fiction film. While there's a lot to admire about it, Ad Astra left me just a little bit cold.
It's the near future and astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is following in the footsteps, or moon boots, of his renowned father, H.Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy is well respected for his professionalism and his coolness under pressure - first shown in a tense opening sequence where he takes a long, long fall from a space antenna.
He undertakes regular psychological evaluations and always passes - and his pulse rate never rises above 80.
But beneath the calm demeanour, Roy has a lot of issues - rage, isolation, pain, estrangement from his wife (Liv Tyler).
Much of this is to do with his work-obsessed, distant father, who left Roy and his mother to go off on a lengthy space mission and hasn't been seen or heard from in 16 years, when he was orbiting around Neptune.
It's thought a series of mysterious and destructive power surges that threaten life on Earth may be emanating from the base for Clifford's top-secret mission, the Lima Project, searching for non-human intelligent life in the universe.
And it's thought Clifford might still be alive.
Roy is assigned to go in search of his father (the positives of their family connection apparently overriding the drawbacks, such as a lack of objectivity).
From the moon to Mars and beyond, he undertakes the long and often dangerous journey, not knowing what he will find along the way or at his destination.
There's more than a hint of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now, in the narrative. Pitt plays the seeker and Jones the mysterious, sought-after figure, with the fililal aspect providing additional interest and intensity to the quest.
Ad Astra ("To the stars" as the opening credits helpfully translate) focuses for much of its running time on Pitt, often in tight close-up, and we hear his thoughts on the soundtrack. The actor's ability and charisma help keep the attention on a character who spends a lot of time with a deadpan expression and an unvarying tone in his voice. It's a well-sustained if necessarily emotionally limited performance by an actor who has long shown he is considerably more than just a pretty face.
Jones, in a much smaller role, has his usual gruffness but also conveys a hint of regarding some of the choices he's made in his life. And Donald Sutherland provides a lively turn as one of Clifford's former colleagues: possibly a nod to him and Jones being among the cast of Space Cowboys with actor-director Clint Eastwood. If it is in fact an in-joke, and it seems likely, it's a subtle, and rare, bit of levity in what is a brooding, sombre film. Director James Gray, who also scripted with Ethan Gross, often has Pitt in tight close-up as his thoughts are delivered on the soundtrack.
Contrasting with this, there are also impressive space vistas and some well-handled action sequences (the special effects, from floating in zero gravity to freefalling, are impressive) .
There's one chase sequence on the moon involving space pirates that is quite exciting but seems a little odd: if the danger of the pirates was known, why would open moon buggies - leaving those on board extremely vulnerable to attack - be used as a means of transportation?
There's more than a hint of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now, in the narrative.
One of the interesting aspects of this "near future" is observing how the world has changed. Obviously, manned deep-space missions are not yet undertaken, but we have long been seeking signs of other intelligent life beyond Earth, so that aspect of human curiosity hasn't changed, despite the "be careful what you wish for" element involved.
Having frequent psychological evaluations via machine is certainly novel - how a mental state can be ascertained from a few brief questions and some physiological monitoring is a interesting point to ponder. The relatively routine nature of travelling to the moon and thence to other planets is intriguing - though the exorbitant cost of simple in-flight amenities might raise the eyebrows of audience members, even if Pitt's character is nonchalant.
There are tantalising hints of battling over resources and strained international relations, but it's understandable these would not be explored in depth given the focus of the film.
Ad Astra is a welcome change of pace from space-opera movies but at times feels as though it was made by its lead character: it's intelligent, careful, pays attention to detail, and is mostly unflappable. However, but there's a dark undercurrent to it and it may be holding back a little too much.
Emotional restraint is fine but the film feels a little cold and detached, reminiscent in mood of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's still worth watching, especially for science fiction fans.