Review: Ad Astra

Written by Ethan Gross and James Gray and directed by Gray, “Ad Astra” is a sci-fi drama set in a not-so-far-off future that follows Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, the son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Major Roy McBride is a member of Space Command, a N.A.S.A. inspired international organization that’s investigating a series of increasingly catastrophic power surges that have been rippling throughout the solar system. Early on in the film Roy is nearly killed by one of the surges while attending to some routine maintenance on the colossal space antenna. It’s a thrilling sequence as Roy falls from the heights of the atmosphere and calmly calculates how to survive the scenario, its a sequence of cold logic paired with intense visuals. The rest of the film may be slower over all, but its peppered with sequences that may catch you off-guard, and that’s part of the joy I found with “Ad Astra”. Yes, it’s a heady sci-fi with a huge amount of narration set mostly in space, but it’s also one that injects some compelling action and thrilling sequences throughout the course of the movie.

After surviving the fall Space-Com brings the dutiful former soldier in for what seems like a debriefing for the space antenna explosion, but is in reality a far more somber and urgent preamble. The brass at Space-Com inform Roy that they believe the source of the power surges fracturing the solar system to be originating from Project Lima, the exploratory vessel that his father Clifford captained out to Neptune’s orbit some years ago. It is a mission of utmost secrecy with deadly implications for Humanity if Roy fails to contact the potentially rogue Clifford- if he’s still alive. At every step of the journey Roy must take scheduled Psychological evaluation tests required by Space-Com, which act as strange confessionals that determine if he’s stable enough to journey farther. The mission, clearly a last ditch effort by Space-Com, is to send Roy to the Mars facility that houses the strongest signal generator left operational from the surges- to send a personal message to his father in the hopes of making contact with The Lima Project and her crew.

With this film and the summer’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, this has become an excellent year for Brad Pitt performances. The two characters, Cliff Booth and Roy McBride, could hardly be more different though. While both are equally cool under pressure, Roy is a far more reserved character. He’s clinically cold to others and heavily contemplates his choices, actions, and past while on his journey. Which is why I so appreciated the efficient use of narration from Roy’s perspective, it can be tough to get narration down correctly without it over-staying its welcome, while also avoiding narrative redundancy. Here the narration serves to add depth, paired with Pitt’s minimalist performance, the film benefits from understanding how the character operates, especially as the story becomes intensely personal over time. The film excels at merging grand, expansive, visuals and score with a more intimate rumination on morality, duty, and the meaning of it all (i.e. Life). Which makes perfect sense as the film is almost wholly about duality and it’s many variations sprinkled throughout the runtime; faith and science, hope and despair, to name a few.

While “Ad Astra” may remind you of other films based on structure (Apocalypse Now), or visuals (Interstellar), it does a lot to make itself unique among fellow sci-fi or journey-based tales. The pacing may require a bit of patience at times and the supporting cast may not be used to their full potential (Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler), however if you’re a fan of a good space travel film or just enjoy similarly cerebral sci-fi like the “Blade Runner” movies, then I highly recommend giving this film a chance.

Final Score: 1 Father, 1000 Daddy issues


Review Catch-Up: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a film about several topics blended together. Yes, it’s a film about Hollywood experiencing a tumultuous evolution in its creative output at the end of the 1960’s, but it is also a film about ageing and the perspective that comes with the passage of time. It’s also about a few dastardly dirty hippies and a multitude of references to decades-old film and television shows and the actors that appeared in them. At times “Once upon a time in Hollywood” can feel like a departure from Tarantino’s earlier work in that this period-piece rumination about Hollywood at the end of an era takes a slower, almost meditative pace at times, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they can tell you that it’s definitively still a Tarantino picture.

This one centers around film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, and part time chauffeur, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are a fascinating duo, as Rick often plays machismo fueled leading men in westerns and war films, yet he’s obsessed with how others perceive his acting to the point of vanity. He can be soft and vulnerable when alone, depressed and weeping over a bungling of lines on a western TV show. While Cliff on the other hand seems to exude all of the qualities that Rick’s characters represent; calmness, masculinity, and violence when the need arises. Tarantino’s ninth film is happy to let you simmer pleasantly with its two lead characters for long stretches of time. It’s content to follow Cliff as he drives Rick in his creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to his home in the Hollywood hills only then to switch to his blue, beaten-up, 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and traverse a sea of neon lights out to a small trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. These two characters, clearly, live and breathe different air- yet seem inseparable as partners in the world of cinema.

Eventually, the film’s story opens up a bit and some questionable characters take our attention. We get a glimpse of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, but it is fleeting. We also see Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) a few times, but his sightings are almost as rare. However we do get a lot more footage of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she goes about her daily life. We watch her casually going to the theater to see one of her own movies, dancing to records at home, and generally being a good-hearted person. While the film takes fairly massive liberties with how the actual real-life events of the Manson family murders took place, there are a lot of accurate details filling out the world Tarantino has crafted. For example, it isn’t just Tarantino’s oft-reported obsession with women’s feet, apparently Sharon Tate was frequently barefoot and would occasionally put rubber-bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants. So while shots of bare feet may not be everyone’s thing, it is accurate in this case (source linked below). Tarantino simply inserted his two leads next door to the scene of the infamous crime. In “Hollywood”, Rick Dalton is the next door neighbor to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, to which Rick plans to turn a chance meeting with the famed director into an opportunity for the, self described, washed-up actor. Beyond the residents of the Hollywood hills, this film is filled to the gills with celebrity cameos, sometimes as an influential movie mogul as with Al Pacino, other times purely as minimal side characters like Kurt Russell’s ‘Randy’ or Timothy Olyphant’s character actor side-by-side Rick Dalton’s guest appearance on the pilot episode of western show ‘Lancer‘. The dialogue here is, as always with Tarantino, very good. However it isn’t quite as punchy as say “The Hateful Eight” or “Inglorious Basterds”, but that shouldn’t turn you toward the door, it’s just a different spice added to Tarantino’s oeuvre.

By now you probably know whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking is for you, but even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaker- you have to admit that his skill in the medium is ageing like a fine wine. Tarantino has been saying that he’ll put down a ten film legacy and be done with making movies, but this film itself is a great argument against that. If he doesn’t want to make more than ten films, then he has earned that and his place in Hollywood’s history, but I highly doubt someone as in love with the art of filmmaking and movies in general will ever give it up. Here’s hoping for at least a few more films from the legendary director!

Final Score: 1 Flamethrower