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'Ad Astra': Stellar Search for Self
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
06:28PM / Friday, October 04, 2019
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"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves." — Shakespeare
While I don't love director James Gray's "Ad Astra," a space cowboy adventure about an accomplished astronaut's (Brad Pitt) mission to locate his legendary astronaut dad (Tommy Lee Jones), previously presumed dead but perhaps gone rogue, I must extol its valuable subtext. You know how you might just be fantasizing about that dream house on a lake in Vermont and suddenly you start getting email advertisements on your phone about just such an abode? Well, per this highly prescient movie set "in the near future," the thought is we are just about there.
In this predicted tomorrow, that sort of mind intrusion has been honed to a T, and space travel has so advanced that Pitt's Roy McBride will sojourn to the far reaches of our solar system in search of the famed H. Clifford McBride. Expect the usual cataclysms, setbacks, gloriously painted vistas and geek-inspired space travel lingo, probably more accurate in its extrapolative depiction of such journeys than ever previously seen on film. But alas, I'm jaded and expect no less from the FX folks as we dauntlessly proceed into cinema's brave new world. Although, your frugal reviewer was set back a bit when our intrepid protagonist paid $125 for a pillow and a blanket during a commercial flight to the moon. I guess Bernie never did get elected.
It is the age-old conundrum, the equation to which we've never quite found the answer, technology versus our personal freedom, played out in tandem with Roy's abandonment issues, hero worship and all the other tricky stuff that enters into Daddy & Son relationships. While that aspect of the script doesn't add anything especially new to the latest psychological theories, it did jog some of my own already established meditations: i.e. My Dad was always working; it would have been nice to see more of him; but what was he to do? I mean, who'd have kicked in the $375 I needed in addition to the $400 I'd saved since childhood to buy that used '60 MGA?
Happily, however, unlike the case of Tommy Lee Jones's storied space explorer, we never worried that Dad's need to work was causing atmospheric disturbances that might ultimately result in the Earth's demise. We were far more concerned that getting overly excited whilst watching professional wrestling on TV would veer him out of our orbit.
In this movie rendition of dads away from home, way out near Neptune, some 2.7 billion miles away, the brilliant scientist won't relent in his originally assigned mission: to find intelligent life.
Gosh knows he's not impressed with what passes for it back on terra firma. And truth be told, considering the shameful political mess we Americans are having such a quandary about extricating ourselves from, I'm starting to wonder myself. Geez, how much must Jacob Marley howl and rattle his chains before we get the message?
It's not quite 1984 in the projected era where Roy McBride fights the good fight to save the world, but probably more like 1983 1/2, the implied message being we can still work for a better future and that the proverbial horse of destiny hasn't quite left the barn, neither in the case of our climate concerns nor our democratic institutions. And thus, while the action and suspense portions of "Ad Astra" don't break any new ground, the central metaphor that defines and locates our time and place in history is not only astute, but important. It's a wake up call to anyone who can wrest themselves from the football, beer and Cheetos long enough to pay heed and, if it's not too much trouble, visit the voting booth.
Our civic obligations and pathway to preserving our own civilization noted, I'd of liked a bit more futurism tossed into the ruminations. The semi-fantastical prophecies of George Lucas' "THX 1138" (1971) and Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) far more piqued my imagination than the cat-and-mouse adventure yarns they so satisfactorily complemented. 'Tis the same here. It's fun to see what new appurtenances might populate our surroundings, and what novel conventions would make our lives easier in return, of course, for sacrificing a bit more of our privacy and civil liberties. In short: Our soul.
But while the movie's crystal ball-inspired doodads, gewgaws and thingamajigs are perhaps sublimated to suggest the deal with the Devil they insinuate, the profoundness of what might come to be is spookily evoked in Pitt's performance. His embodiment of the hero it'd take to navigate the Big Brother-inspired anxieties of this prophesied world is sublimely perceptive.
That he is at once wary, dejected, and resigned, yet we fellow humans nonetheless hang our hats on that glimmer of optimism we discern in him, and thus in ourselves, is "Ad Astra's" redeeming, stellar attribute.
"Ad Astra," rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by James Gray and stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. Running time: 123 minutes
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