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“Ad Astra” Is Ambitious, Haunting, And Incredibly Moving

James Gray never gets the acclaim that he deserves. For years, the filmmaker has been doing high quality work that repeatedly gets the short shrift. Especially with Two Lovers, the lack of love is just absurd. This week, however, he’s finally going to be on the radar of the masses, as his largest movie to date is opening in Ad Astra. With some of his most emotional directing, alongside a phenomenal Brad Pitt lead performance, this is damn near a masterpiece. Without question, this is one of the best works of 2019 so far. Furthermore, it’s not at all like you probably imagined it would be when the project was first announced. It’s something different, and truly, something more.

The film is a science fiction drama mixed with a mystery, though that’s an incredibly reductive description. Set in the not at all distant future, humanity has made technological gains, but is just as volatile as ever. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is Space Command’s best astronaut, by far, but one who vanished 30 years ago on a mission to Neptune that involved dark matter and attempts to discover alien life beyond our solar system. Now, his son Roy McBride (Pitt) has followed in his footsteps, with an ever calm pulse and a steady hand. If Cliff was once the best, Roy is now. When an event suggests imminent danger for the planet and the potential responsibility of whatever is left of Cliff’s project, Roy is sent on a top secret mission to figure out what’s going on. He’ll be sent undercover to a colonized moon, before shuttled off to Mars to attempt to contact his father and/or the mission. It would be a spoiler to say what happens next, but events will test Roy and bring out emotions he’s buried for decades. Gray directs and co-writes here with Ethan Gross. Supporting players include Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, and more. The score is by Max Richter, while Hoyte Van Hoytema contributes the cinematography.

Ad Astra just floored me. If Bruce Springsteen wrote a tale of space travel, it might be something like this, so engrained in the story is the idea of the sins of the father being visited upon the son. Ultimately, this is a surprisingly hopeful tale about coming to terms with emotion. It reminded me more than a little bit of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, specifically its plea for humans to be kinder to each other. Gray and Pitt are exploring some deeply personal things, just within the trappings of an epic space adventure. It’s truly something to behold, especially as it enters its transitional third act.

Brad Pitt is phenomenal here. This performance stands tall as one of the very best of his career so far. Between Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, the man is having a hell of a year. In this movie, he’s a mixture of emotive and restrained, holding back all during the first half. There’s a specific moment where his humanity begins to seep through, ultimately becoming what defines him late in the game. With expressive voiceover, as well as compelling actions, Pitt crafts one of his most hypnotic characters to date. Jones, Negga, and Tyler do nice work with small parts, but this is 100% Pitt’s show. For just over two hours, he grabs your attention and does not let go even once.

Along with Two Lovers, this is James Gray’s best work. Sci-fi suits him well, giving him an epic canvas to paint on. Gray fills the film with creative and specific details, like the way colonization of the moon would immediately lead to commodification and essentially an interstellar Grand Central Station, completely with fast food and a Hudson News. Gray and Gross’ script is full of small moments like that which just fill out the world magnificently, without ever calling attention to them. Then, there’s a powerful score by Max Richter, as well as Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sterling cinematography, all of which are Academy Award worthy.

Ad Astra is a movie that demands your attention, but is never homework. The sci-fi trappings will attract audiences, and there’s a couple of strong action sequences to keep folks on the edge of their seats, but this is a far more meditative work than that. The nature of Pitt’s character, as well as what awaits him as he pursues his father, are far more on Gray’s mind. The mystery even is secondary, with the emotions behind parental baggage coming to the forefront as the third act commences. It’s a bold and less than commercial move, but it’s the right one for the material, and it really pays dividends by the end.

This weekend, audiences are in for a treat if they open their hearts and their minds to what Gray and Pitt are offering up with Ad Astra. This is an Oscar contender that truly lives up to the hype. Go into this one without any preconceived notions and just let its greatness wash over you. Without question, this is one of the top releases of 2019 so far. It’s a must see, plain and simple…

Be sure to check out Ad Astra, in theaters everywhere on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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