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September 29, 2019

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A space odyssey with daddy issues

HAVING stayed rigorously close to his native New York for much of his career, writer-director James Gray has been making up for lost time. His last film, “The Lost City of Z,” journeyed into the Amazon, circa early 20th century. His latest, “Ad Astra,” skitters across the solar system like a stone skipping through space.

Both films aren’t merely changes in setting. They’re inherently about leaving home, the sacrifice entailed, the wonders to be discovered and the cost of obsessions that require pursuit. It’s fitting that they follow Gray’s masterpiece, “The Immigrant,” a profound and melancholic tale of passage. Whether orbiting New York or Neptune, Gray has been on the move for some time.

“Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in the near future, is easily the most expensive production yet for Gray its timing is fortuitous. Coming on the heels of Pitt’s radiant performance in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” ‘’Ad Astra” seems almost like an encore amid all the celebration of its lead performer, a singular star in a movie universe with few that can match his luster.

But “Ad Astra” is much more than a rocket-fueled vehicle for its star. It’s a ruminative, mythical space adventure propelled by father-son issues of cosmic proportions.

Pitt’s Roy McBride is ordered to the far reaches of the solar system to make contact with his previously presumed dead father, legendary space explorer H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). He’s feared to have gone mad, and is suspected of having something to do with power surges playing havoc with Earth’s electronics. In the film’s staggering first moments, McBride is working on a miles-high antenna, when a surge sweeps over it. Explosions follow and McBride plummets through the stratosphere.

“Ad Astra” is mapped like “Apocalypse Now.” Instead of an ominous, top-secret trek down a Vietnamese river toward Colonel Kurtz, McBride is hopping between planetary stations en route to another missing hero-turned-psychopath, with a mission to potentially search and destroy. That this is Roy’s father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a youngster, adds significantly to the implications of the journey.

Pitt’s astronaut is a solitary figure, taciturn and cool under pressure. Much of the charisma he so effortlessly displayed in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” has gone into hiding, replaced with a more pensive and subtle performance. His space voyage comes in contact with a handful of colorful figures, all of them underused (Donald Sutherland, Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, a pair of rabid space baboons). But Roy’s chiefly in dialogue with himself and the old video transmissions from his father.

In copious amounts of voice over and frequent confessional-like psychological evaluations, Roy narrates his psychological voyage through the stars. “I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important,” he says early in the film, pledging his devotion to the mission. It’s a line that will come to mean something else to Roy as he gets further and further from home and goes deeper and deeper into his — and his father’s — obsessions. The nature of ambition gets deconstructed. Grandiosity gets toppled by elemental humanity.

Where “Ad Astra” misses the mark is in so closely marrying its subtext with its text. Roy is navigating his relationship to his absent father both literally and figuratively. Daddy issues, alone, can take you only so far, even if it’s to Neptune.


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