Ad Astra review: Brad Pitt is quite brilliant in this epic, intensely poetic tale

Many years ago, I was a guest on a community radio arts show whose theme that week was aliens. “Is there intelligent life out there?” the jovial host earnestly inquired. “Never mind out there,” I replied, looking gloomily around studio, “is there intelligent life in here?” That question could be cast wide to encompass our entire planet, beset by despots and rapacious ultra-capitalists merrily burning humanity’s future in the short term pursuit of wealth and power. Trump voters, Brexit fans, people who believe that Jair Bolsonaro is a hero: the world is awash with crassness and stupidity, and all hope it seems is lost.

Perhaps not, because according to James Grey’s new film, humanity will shortly get its act together, make rapid advances in space travel and start looking towards the stars. An awesome spectacle that veers between heady optimism and existential despair, Ad Astra stars a rejuvenated Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, a US astronaut whose obsession with space has played havoc with his personal life.

Roy’s a silent soul, a man quivering with emotions he’s careful to suppress, but like Neil Armstrong remains icily calm in the most dangerous circumstances, a physiological talent he inherited from his dad. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was the most decorated astronaut of them all, a brilliant and fearless pioneer who disappeared while undertaking a daring mission to Neptune.

That was years ago, and Roy has always presumed his father was dead until he’s summoned by superiors who believe otherwise. A series of violent cosmic shocks have struck the Earth causing huge damage: their source is the planet Neptune, and military analysts suspect Clifford McBride may be involved. The spacecraft he disappeared on was powered by antimatter, which would devastate our solar system if unleashed in sufficient quantities. Clifford might still be alive, and Roy is stung when it’s then suggested the great man could have lost his mind and might be doing it deliberately.

Roy agrees to strike out for the blue planet to find out exactly what’s going on, and in a moment of wonderfully quotidian banality, boards a commercial flight to the Moon to avoid raising suspicion. After passing through a tacky spaceport complete with what looks like a lunar duty free, Roy joins a crew of astronauts bound for Mars, from whence he’ll journey on alone towards distant Neptune.

The aim of his father’s mission had been the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but as the voyagers slowly coast towards Mars, they are oppressed by the silence and apparent emptiness of the great void around them. In a film full of big ideas, the most poetic is the notion that the further men and women travel from the Earth, the more frantic and unhinged they become. Not Roy, who calmly observes the fear and flapping of his colleagues with what looks like contempt. His only fear is what he’ll find when he reaches his destination, and comes face to face with the myth that is his dad.

James Grey’s commendably ambitious film might have been called ‘Apocalypse Neptune’: its simple plot echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Franics Coppola’s vivid Vietnam-era adaptation, with deep space standing in for impenetrable jungle. It is at times breathtakingly beautiful, and ought to be viewed on the biggest screen available: you shrink in your seat as hulking spaceships are rendered specks by the terrifying mass of passing planets, and feel through your shoes for the comfort of solid ground whenever Roy stares out a portal into inky black nothingness.

The science at times is ropey, especially late on when a spacesuited Roy seems to be able to glide through space towards his ship by force of will alone, rather than spinning off screaming into the abyss as he ought. But it would be churlish to dwell on the film’s astrophysical shortcomings, because it’s an epic, an intensely poetic tale with the troubled bond between a father and son at its core.

Brad Pitt is best when playing silent, watchful types who suppress their emotions, and is quite brilliant here as the gloomy and fatalistic Roy, who ponders humanity’s dwindling options as he journeys alone further and further from Earth. And what if it’s just us? What if all those shining specks we see in the night sky are barren deserts, lifeless waterworlds, and that we’re all the Universe has got? Now that is a depressing thought.

(12A, 123mins)

Also releasing this week:

The Farewell

5 stars

Written and directed by Lulu Wang and closely based on her own experiences, The Farewell is hilarious and heartwarming family drama.

The excellent Awkwafina is Billi Wang, an aspiring Chinese-American writer whose career choice causes her immigrant parents endless anxiety.

Though she left China aged just six, Billi’s maintained a close relationship with her paternal grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who she talks to constantly on the phone.

But when Nai Nai is diagnosed with lung cancer, Billi’s parents rush home to the city of Changchun to be at her side.

When Billi follows them, she finds out about the Chinese tradition of families hiding cancer diagnoses from their loved ones, the idea being that they carry the burden for them.

Billi thinks this is a crock, and will struggle to hold her tongue through an excruciating family wedding.

It’s wonderful stuff from start to finish, and one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

(PG, 98mins)

The Kitchen

2 stars

Though it’s now jammed with aspiring actors and yuppie Wall Street traders, the Hell’s Kitchen area of midtown Manhattan was once synonymous with a notorious Irish-American crime gang called the Westies.

Andrea Berloff’s film is based on a series of hard-boiled 1990s graphic novels and is set in the late 1970s, when the Westies were on the wane.

When their not particularly bright mobster husbands are sent to prison after a botched job, Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Claire Walsh (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) are left with little to live on, and decide to take over their spouses’ protection rackets.

For this they’ll need muscle, and so enlist the services of an unhinged Vietnam veteran called O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), but their rapidly expanding enterprise soon lands them in trouble with the Irish and Italian mobs.

The Kitchen is nice to look at but structurally and tonally unsound, and so clumsily are the post me#too politics retrospectively applied that it doesn’t feel like we’re in the 1970s at all. Gleeson is terrific, though.

(16, 103mins)

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