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  Ad Astra There Were Other Gods Than Neptune
Year: 2019
Director: James Gray
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Kayla Adams, Ravi Kapoor, Elisa Perry, Natasha Lyonne
Genre: Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut of the not-too-distant future, but despite his proximity to the infinite in everyday life, he is feeling something missing in those days. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) might be that missing element, a man he always looked up to in his younger years yet who effectively abandoned him to embark on a space mission to Neptune and never returned, breaking off contact from Earth completely - Roy doesn't even know if he is still alive, though he harbours a spark of hope. Meanwhile, on the home planet there have been disasters occurring thanks to cosmic bursts passing through the solar system, leading him to embark on a mission of his own...

Sticklers for scientific accuracy had a field day with writer (with Ethan Gross) and director James Gray's Ad Astra, since it contained so many howlers that the film became a punching bag for anyone with a passing interest in reality versus the way space travel is depicted in the movies. But there was a reason for that, as Gray was less interested in keeping his details watertight, and more interested in exploring the inner spiritual life by way of a symbolic journey through what was ostensibly the Solar System, but was in actuality his protagonist's search for meaning in a hostile universe. Though he never visits any stars, not our Sun or anything else starlike, it was his personality that mattered.

Naturally, plonk an audience in front of that in the twenty-first century and not everyone will have patience with it, so little wonder as the lovely visual effects drifted by on the screen they had plenty of time to pick the plot and the trappings apart, leaving the ethereal self-discovery which not everyone was going to either make out, or if they could, go along with in any great willingness. And yet, there were those who went to see this and came away enriched, so what were they seeing that passed everyone else by, everyone who perked up at the pirate battle or the sequence where baboons appear to have devoured an entire research vessel's crew whole, without a shred of mercy.

Yes, there were eccentricities in Ad Astra that could only have stemmed from a project so personal, often meaning far more to the creator than those watching. However, it did pick up a cult following, and not purely because of its imagery, beautifully cultivated and photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, not coincidentally Christopher Nolan's cinematographer on Interstellar (which really did go ad astra - "to the stars"). No, this stood for something, and what were dismissed as daddy issues (which are at least cooler in cinematic terms than mommy issues) were representative of a hole in the soul rather than not getting enough attention from an absent parent. Except it kind of was, for that absent parent was God Almighty, who unlike Tommy Lee Jones humanity must consider the possibility does not exist.

That was heavy, thumping symbolism, yet oddly not everyone picked up on it, perhaps an indication that spiritual themes had drifted out of the general consciousness since the days of epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, heck since 2001: A Space Odyssey which has its own musings over what a God could be should it be out there in the cosmos. There was a blatant debt to that Stanley Kubrick classic in Ad Astra, as there was in the considerably brasher Event Horizon, a flop in the late nineties that went on to be curiously influential in both science fiction and horror, also featuring a plot where the mission to Neptune was the main concern. You don't hire Jones just to show up in archive footage on little screens occasionally, so it was not much of a surprise he did indeed appear nearer the end, but there was casting apparently designed to bring character to roles that were more functional than colourful, and Pitt was in his subdued mode, not always to his best advantage. But the conclusion, that God is what we make it, did intrigue if you let it. Music by John Axelrad and Lorne Balfe.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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