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At times, Ad Astra, the new film from director James Gray, feels like a blending of the many science fiction films that have come before it.  The opening text is reminiscent of Blade Runner, the first action scene feels very much like Gravity, and the whole journey through space aspect is reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar.  There are definite nods to the horror of Alien and maybe even a little Moonraker campiness. But as soon as Brad Pitt’s astronaut is brought into a meeting where he is told that his father may have gone a little mad on the other side of the solar system and they want him to travel to communicate with him, you realize that what you are actually about to see is Apocalypse Now, or more specifically Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in space.   

Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in the near future who has devoted his entire life to his work in space, at the expense of his relationships on Earth.  When a mysterious wave of energy originating from Neptune wreaks havoc with the technology of the human race, threatening our way of life, Roy is called in and told that the father he presumed to be dead may be alive and that his work may be the cause of the phenomenon now being called “the surge.”  Roy is sent on a mission to Mars, the most distant human outpost, where he will send a message to his father, pleading with him to stop what he is doing and return to Earth.

After a journey to Mars that is not without its share of perils, Roy is able to successfully send the message to his father.  But it turns out that this was all the powers that be wanted from him and they send him away without even telling him how his father responded.  Determined to find his father, Roy teams up with a woman named Helen to force his way onto the ship that is now headed towards Neptune on a mission to destroy the elder McBride’s work and perhaps even McBride himself.  What will happen when Roy reaches his father, not even Roy knows.

With our lead character being sent on a mission into the dark unknown to find a powerful man who may or may not have gone insane, the connection to Apocalypse Now is clear—Roy’s father may even be a Colonel, I don’t recall if they ever mention his rank—but that is not to say that Ad Astra is unoriginal or derivative.  In fact, the movie feels quite refreshing in an era when space movies are mostly dominated by light sabers and talking trees.  That is not to say that the movie aims for out-and-out realism.  On the contrary, most of the movie’s action set pieces feature physics that are highly questionable to say the least.  But much like the end of The Martian, the human story is so compelling that you don’t really care if that’s how space physics actually work.

Like many science-fiction movies before it, the characters in Ad Astra seek to discover whether we are alone in the universe.  But where most movies might rely on the discovery of alien life to be the answer to that question, Ad Astra posits that that we are not alone, even if we never find extraterrestrial life.  This is revealed mostly through Roy’s character arc and his relationship with his wife Eve.  Eve is barely in the film and has few lines of dialogue, but casting the role with a recognizable actress like Liv Tyler allows us as an audience to form her character from our experience with the performer, which is an efficient way to establish her presence in the overall story despite the lack of screen time.

Brad Pitt delivers another terrific performance as Roy McBride.  It is almost a complete one-eighty from his showy, movie star role in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood earlier this year.  Roy is a quiet, reserved, and a relatively introverted character.  He carries the entire movie as he rarely shares the screen with another actor for very long and yet he does so without overplaying anything.  He rarely raises his voice above a calm whisper and his emotional performance is mostly in seen in his soft eyes and subtle facial reactions.

Pitt’s performance, combined with the breathtaking visuals and powerful musical score, raise Ad Astra above your average science-fiction film and create an experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen; as big a screen as possible.  This movie is the reason why we have IMAX theaters.

Ad Astra opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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