Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Ad Astra – seeking the things that are above, an emotional vacuum-fuelled distant family reunion

Ad Astra is a story about a son searching to understand his father as much as to find him and stop surges of anti-matter radiating across the universe and threatening life on Earth and other colonised moons and planets. And a story that challenges our cosy view that space is an environment which has grown up from the ‘space race’ and instead encourages international cooperation.

The opening credits explain that Ad Astra is set in “the near future” in a time experiencing both “hope and conflict”. But this isn’t a parable about Brexit.

Technology allows regular commercial flights to the moon; but human nature means that the moon’s riches are contested and if you go outside set areas you’re entering a low-gravity Wild West of bandits and space cowboys. Society is patriarchal – or is that the fault of the director James Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross? – with rocket pilots and co-pilots exclusively male, and women are all portrayed as weak and second class. Ad Astra is unlikely to pass the Bechdel Test!

Space cinema is often as much about the psychology and the inner mind as the vistas and the risky travel. Ad Astra delivers both. For the first hour or more it’s a well-paced journey from Earth to the moon and beyond, set in even-sized chapters, with various threats along the way to spice it up.

Brad Pitt navigates corridors, drives buggies, pilots rockets and makes do and mends like a seasoned and unpanicked astronaut Major in the Army Corps of Engineers. Externally he’s rugged with a stubble that never grows; internally, he’s empty, an emotional vacuum. Basically, he plays Jason Bourne in space, making everything look almost casual rather than extraordinary.

Tommy Lee Jones adds to the emotional distance with his chillingly cold portrayal of McBride senior. The plug for Virgin Atlantic and their expensive in-flight pillows is tacky.

The storytelling takes a wobble at the point Major Roy McBride nears his furthest destination and the distance takes a toll on his physical and health. An awkward yet revealing reunion is rushed, and one particular extravehicular scene flying across a long distance with an improvised shield defies relative velocity, mechanics and physics, never mind believability.

While its final chapters lack the assuredness of the brilliant start, Ad Astra delivers a very watchable science fiction treat: a treatise on internal solitude, pain, anger, ambivalent loyalties, distance, driven-ness, distance, being lost and staying lost … and baboons!

Ad Astra lands in local cinemas from Wednesday 18 September.

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