[Screen It]


(2019) (Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones) (PG-13)

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Drama: An astronaut is sent on a mission to stop a destructive energy surge that seems to be emanating from Neptune and may involve his long-missing father.
It's the near future and Roy McBride (BRAD PITT) is an astronaut best-known for never losing his cool under any circumstance and for being the son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (TOMMY LEE JONES). While working on the International Space Antenna, Roy is nearly killed by a destructive energy surge that strikes Earth. He's then informed that the surge appears to be emanating from Neptune and that Clifford -- who left with the Lima Project crew twenty-nine years ago to search for intelligent life out in the cosmos but disappeared sixteen years into the mission -- might somehow be involved.

No longer with his wife, Eve (LIV TYLER), Roy has no issues with his new assignment -- to travel to Mars via the Moon and attempt to get a message off to his father that might stop that man from whatever he might be doing. With the help of former veteran astronaut Colonel Pruitt (DONALD SUTHERLAND) and Helen Lantos (RUTH NEGGA) who runs operations on Mars, Roy tries to do just that, all while dealing with conflicted emotions regarding his dad.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
A snarky way some people -- including yours truly on occasion -- respond to new things is with the comment, "I liked it better when it was called (fill in the blank)." That can apply to all sorts of things ranging from political plans to clothing styles to the sound of bands to -- yes, you guessed it -- new movies.

Of course, it's hard to make something so unique that there's no real precedent or comparison available, but when one's being inspired by, lifting or downright stealing from a predecessor, it's best to infuse as much novelty or at least enough changes to avoid such copycat comparisons.

All of which brings us around to "Ad Astra," a space drama (where the Latin to English title translation is "to the stars") that features Brad Pitt as an astronaut sent to deal with another such space traveler who may or may not have gone rogue and might be responsible in one way or another for inter-galactic energy surges that are doing Earth and its inhabitants no favors.

Considering that underlying "find and stop/destroy" plot, a number of other elements and, in particular, the use of voice-over narration detailing the protagonist's views of the situation and the antagonist he's searching for, I left our press screening stating, "I liked it better when it was called 'Apocalypse Now'" (which is likely what some said, albeit replacing that title with "Heart of Darkness" all those years ago when Frances Ford Coppola's Vietnam masterpiece was released).

That's not meant to imply I disliked the movie. To the contrary, I liked it quite a bit. But so many parts are so similar to that earlier offering that I kept repeatedly writing down the title of that 1979 film in my notes while watching this one play out over the course of two hours or so

Yes, there are differences, the most notable being -- obviously -- that this one's set in space rather than Cambodia by means of Saigon. And the previous film didn't have the family connection between the hunter and hunted as occurs here.

But the basic storyline (including the protagonist hitching a ride with others in his profession -- although without hardly any personality compared to what Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest and Albert Hall delivered four decades ago) and especially the cadence of that voice-over work (Pitt seems to have been heavily inspired by Martin Sheen's dialogue reading back then) makes the comparisons impossible to ignore.

All of that said, if you've never seen the '79 film and aren't familiar with Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel that inspired it, you won't be distracted by any of that as director James Gray otherwise keeps us mesmerized from start to finish. Pitt, who I can't recall ever giving a bad performance, is terrific here as astronaut Roy McBride who definitely has the right stuff, what with being a legacy and the ability to never be fazed by anything that occurs, such as the catastrophe that gets the film going with a figurative and literal bang.

While he's out working on the International Space Antenna just above Earth's atmosphere, the first surge sweeps through, setting off a chain reaction of events that have parts of the antenna (and at least one other astronaut) plummeting toward Earth. Roy ends up doing the same, and despite spinning out of control on his way down, he's all zen about the incident, with his heart rate never rising above "meh."

That makes him the ideal candidate for some high-ranking officials who deliver some top-secret intel to him -- his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who left on a mission known as the Lima Project nearly three decades ago only to go missing sixteen years into the trip while trying to find intelligent life somewhere out there, might still be alive. And if so, he might be the intentional or accidental cause of such surges emanating from the near orbit of Neptune.

The task at hand is for Roy to travel to Mars via a stopover on the Moon and send a signal to his old man to cut it out. And if that doesn't work, a nuke with Clifford McBride's name on it will be on its way.

But what the space agency brass don't realize is that Roy has unresolved daddy issues that he's kept buried for a few decades, what with his father essentially abandoning him at the age of sixteen with his mother. And those issues have done a number on the man, first in ending his marriage (his wife is played in flashbacks by Liv Tyler) and then causing him to unravel the farther he travels and the closer he comes to possibly seeing that man again.

That plays out slowly but surely in Gray and Ethan Gross' screenplay where bits of action -- a space pirate chase on the moon, a space baboon attack sequence (yes, you read that correctly) -- are interspersed to inject movie adrenaline every now and then and prevent things from otherwise getting too touchy-feely-talky.

While it's not in the same league as "Apocalypse Now" (and its iconic scenes -- the "Ride of the Valkyries" chopper attack -- and dialogue -- "Charlie don't surf" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"), "Ad Astra" shares the themes of toxic masculinity and shines brightly because of Gray's assured direction and Pitt's terrific performance. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 12, 2019 / Posted September 20, 2019

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