Review: Ad Astra is a masterful interplanetary riff on Apocalypse Now

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AD ASTRA (James Gray). 124 minutes. Opens Thursday (September 19). See listing. Rating: NNNNN


Of all the things I thought Ad Astra might be, I never would have predicted that James Gray would make an interplanetary riff on Apocalypse Now. But here it is, and here we are, with an apocalypse that’s much smaller and more personal despite the fate of all known life hanging in the balance.

To be more specific, Gray and his co-writer and long-time friend Ethan Gross are drawing from Heart Of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novella that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s film, with its solitary hero embarking on a long and perilous journey to find a madman living in isolation. 

Ad Astra sets aside Coppola’s political context and returns the story to the purity of Conrad’s conception. No enemy is trying to kill you; the antagonist is the journey itself. One must be worthy of the destination.

Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, is worthy. A major in America’s near-future Space Command, he’s seen his share of action (“over the Arctic Circle”) and is so committed to his work that it’s cost him his marriage. His pulse never goes over 80, even during a fall from a stratospheric platform. He is, more or less, the pop-culture image of Brad Pitt. And when a barrage of cosmic rays devastates all technology and puts the entire planet at risk, Roy is the man they ask to save us… because his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who left Earth on a classified energy project decades earlier, is presumed to be its source. 

Roy’s mission plays out in three sections: a trip to the moon, a mission to Mars and then a final step out into the unknown. There are complications and interruptions, and the last thing I want to do is spoil any of them – except to say that Gray and Gross manage to nod in the direction of several SF touchstones without ever letting them take over. In an era of movies that are not-so-secretly other movies, Ad Astra stays on its own course, which is no small accomplishment.

But what about Gravity? Gray’s film will be compared to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 nail-biter for its hyperrealistic depiction of space travel, and for the fact that the bulk of its story focuses exclusively on one person’s life-and-death struggle in the void. But where Gravity played out in something close to real time, Ad Astra spans days, weeks and months, leaving us with Roy as he moves through the darkness with plenty of time to think. 

The character’s internal monologue, with its thoughtful considerations of family and faith, has been interpreted by some as a nod to Terrence Malick, but I found it more in line with Capt. Willard’s voice-over in Apocalypse Now, existing entirely in the moment. It’s a state with which Gray is intimately familiar, after The Lost City Of Z, The Immigrant and Two Lovers.

I have no idea how a mass audience will respond to Gray’s latest journey, which – like Coppola’s Vietnam odyssey – sets itself up as one thing, and works well enough on that level, but contains something far deeper and more meditative within. 

Some people love Apocalypse Now for the pure kinetic overload of the Ride Of The Valkyries sequence. Ad Astra offers something similar in its opening movement, so hopefully that’ll be enough. It goes somewhere else after that – into the heart of a son as he travels out into the infinite depths, searching for answers to questions he doesn’t even know he’s been asking.

What a goddamn great movie this is.

@normwilner

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A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta).

Read more by Norman Wilner

September 17, 2019

5:40 PM