Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ad Astra

Did a stupid thing with the T yesterday afternoon and thus was not able to fit a stop at Somerville's What the Fluff? Festival in before this movie, which is probably a good thing for my teeth and stomach but it's tough to have such a thing in town and not go.

Funny thing, though - even buying tickets the night before, there were still already seats reserved in my favorite area (in front of the moat, center). Kind of weird; I'm usually the only person who wants to be there. Maybe others are becoming hip to the beauty of having the screen fill one's entire field of vision, especially for a grand-scale movie like this?

Maybe, maybe not. At least the guy working concessions saw my Fantasia Festival t-shirt and asked about it, which is always cool.

Ad Astra

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2019 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

A regular pet peeve of mine with this sort of movie in particular is the urge to reduce something awesome in scale to a dysfunctional relationship between two people, like neither filmmakers nor audiences have the imagination to be affected by more than their personal concerns. Ad Astra is that in spades, but the fact that it's that from the start maybe kind of skeptical about it kind of turns that idea on its head a bit. All of this may be baked into the plot rather than hidden underneath, and that very fact makes certain things dubious and more uncomfortable rather than simple pandering.

The film ponders a future where the exploration and exploitation of space has become a sort of public-private partnership, with astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on an antenna in low-earth orbit when some sort of electromagnetic pulse hits, sending him falling to Earth and blacking out large swathes of the planet. The source is some sort of antimatter reaction near Neptune, where a SETI mission captained by Roy's legendary father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) went radio-silent sixteen years ago, already away from Earth for 13 years. It had an antimatter engine, and Space Command hopes that having Roy transmit a message to his father from a relay station on Mars might yield some sort of response. The whole thing is highly classified, of course, with both the former astronaut sent as a partner (Donald Sutherland) and the red planet's chief administrator (Ruth Negga) knowing things about H. Clifford McBride and the Lima project that Roy doesn't.

The scene where the Generals are briefing Roy and seemingly suggesting what in many other films is the last-ditch, emotion-over-cold-logic climax as Plan A comes early enough in the film to play as a clever subversion of that trope, giving writer/director James Gray the whole film to examine this thing that often serves as a shortcut because it seems instinctively right. The audience already knows it's more complicated than that; the audience is privy to Roy's inner monologue and it shows a man well aware that he's hiding a fair amount of turmoil behind a stoicism so well-nurtured that his heart literally never races. It gives the film an intriguingly pessimistic emotional core, one often played with calm devastation, made out of relationships that cannot be fixed and damage that cannot be undone.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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