Ad Astra ★★1/2
Close Encounters of the Father/Son Kind
The father/son film is something of a Hollywood industry. IMDB—the internet movie database—lists the top 100, including “Field of Dreams” (1989—son reconciles with ghost father over a game of catch) and “October Sky” (1999—father fails to support son’s science projects), but missing classics such as “Rebel without a Cause” (1955—weak, feminine father) and “The Great Santini” (1979—alpha male father).
“Ad Astra” combines the father/son genre with science fiction—like “Star Wars” (1977—Darth Vader/Dark Father)—in ways both satisfying and disappointing. On the satisfying side are several of the sci-fi moments, notably a superb opening scene featuring a giant satellite space antenna, on which men and women are working, hit by electrical surges emanating, as it turns out, from planet Neptune. The return-to-earth sequence on the film’s back end is also compelling fare—almost as good as the pioneering, nail-biting scene in “Destination Moon” (1950), a largely forgotten masterpiece of angst—even if elements of it (fending off space debris with a jury-rigged shield, using a nuclear explosion to provide thrust for the ship) defy reason.
This latest of sci-fi dramas is a one-man show. Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, the son, is appropriately laconic and somewhat cold and mechanical in demeanor through much of the film, befitting an experienced and trusted astronaut who for years has accepted the challenges and risks of space exploration, as well as the consequences of such a life for his social relationships (no children, a distanced wife [the sparsely appearing Liv Tyler]).
The long list of disappointments includes some clunky sci-fi; “Ad Astra” fails to rise to the level of award-winning films such as 2013’s “Gravity” and 2016’s “Arrival.” More troubling are the story and script, which labor to put father and son together on the same distant planet. The father (Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride), a legendary pioneering astronaut in his own era, was sent 26 years earlier by the U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom) with a small crew to Neptune, in an effort to find intelligent life in the farthest reaches of the Solar System—the Lima Project. Communication ended 19 years ago, and McBride was presumed dead. The electrical surges now emanating from Neptune threaten the existence of planet Earth and raise the possibility that Clifford is alive, has gone rogue, and perhaps is responsible.
The son is tasked with traveling to Mars via the Moon (imaginatively, on a commercial flight), where his land rover is (unimaginatively) attacked by pirates, apparently to forestall viewer boredom. Once on Mars, Roy dutifully makes contact with his father, without knowing this information might be used to kill the older McBride—an action to be carried out by others. Discovering the “plot,” the son steals aboard the Neptune-bound craft, in still another highly unlikely endeavor. Trouble ensues, and the son is soon alone on the spaceship, facilitating the one-on-one confrontation with the father that the script is desperate to produce. The McBrides will have eliminated a lot of scientists and astronauts (though no one seems to care) to produce their moment of togetherness.
When son meets father—who has been living a hermit-like existence all these many years—you’ll learn what happened to those working with him, what Clifford McBride has to do with the power surges threatening Earth, and, not least, wonder what he ate on a space station for more than two decades. But before all that, the normally stoic, unemotional son blurts out, “I love you Dad,” surely one of the worst lines in the history of cinema. Indeed, the line contradicts the psychological backstory: the son harbors a submerged rage from being abandoned by his father. Dad, who has pretty much gone off his rocker with his own rage, responds by begging to be cast away to a certain death in deep dark space.
No more convincing is Roy’s migration from cool and rational to warm and emotional, a journey motivated by the bizarre meeting with his father. It’s captured in the film’s final scene, in which the appearance of his once-estranged wife signifies he’s a changed man. Even the director couldn’t believe it; Tyler’s Eve is photographed as a shadowy figure, across the room from where the son is completing a final psychological exam. At least we can celebrate that Roy isn’t named Adam.
Though the father/son theme doesn’t play out well, and the sci-fi package at times lacks coherence and credulity, “Ad Astra” offers plenty of action and entertainment, sustained by a strong performance from Brad Pitt.
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga
Runtime: 123 minutes