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In Theaters: AD ASTRA (2019)

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AD ASTRA
(US/China - 2019)

Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross. Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Greg Bryk, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne, LisaGay Hamilton, Sean Blakemore, John Finn, Freda Foh Shen, Ravi Kapoor. (PG-13, 123 mins)

Writer/director James Gray has spent too much of his career--dating back to 1994's LITTLE ODESSA--paying and repaying his dues. Starting out as a gifted NYC filmmaker of the Sidney Lumet sort whose style and subjects would've made him an influential auteur in the '70s instead of someone with a devoted cult following today, Gray hit a wall when he stood his ground against a meddling Harvey Weinstein over 2000's THE YARDS. Weinstein, at the peak of his powers as a Hollywood mover and shaker, retaliated by shelving the film for two years and then barely releasing it despite critical acclaim. Gray resurfaced with 2007's underrated cop thriller WE OWN THE NIGHT but again saw his momentum stalled when 2009's TWO LOVERS fell victim to star Joaquin Phoenix's faux-public meltdown with his fake documentary I'M STILL HERE. Gray's next film, the wonderful period piece THE IMMIGRANT, was acquired by Weinstein and, in one of the most flagrant acts of petty, prickish score-settling in recent Hollywood history, was promptly shelved for a year before being unceremoniously dumped on Netflix with no fanfare in 2014, as Weinstein opted to bury what would've been certain Oscar bait just to get back at a director who didn't cave to his bullying tactics 15 years earlier. 2017's THE LOST CITY OF Z was Gray's most ambitious project up to that time, and while it wasn't a big hit, he had the support of executive producer Brad Pitt and for the first time in a long time, didn't have to deal with any extraneous bullshit.





That brings us to Gray's latest film, the mega-budget, near-future sci-fi epic AD ASTRA, which again reunites him with producer Pitt, who also stars as Col. Roy McBride, a SpaceCom astronaut summoned to embark on a top-secret, classified mission to the outer reaches of the solar system, ostensibly to deal with a recent phenomenon known as "The Surge"--waves of power bursts that are posing a grave threat to Earth and the entire universe. The Surge has been traced to the Lima Project, an exploratory mission that took off 30 years earlier to search for intelligent life in the universe. SpaceCom lost contact with the Lima Project 16 years into the mission, the last official dispatch coming from Mars, with Lima now believed to have drifted into the orbit of Neptune. Roy has been chosen for a reason: his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) was the commander of the Lima Project and SpaceCom brass has enough evidence to believe he's been alive all this time and might be the source of the threatening Surge. The assignment opens old wounds for Roy, who never got over the feeling of abandonment by his father, who's regarded as the world's greatest and bravest space traveler. Roy teams with Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old colleague of his father's, and takes a commercial flight to the moon, now a popular tourist destination (with an Applebee's and a Subway in a shopping center), where the plan is to board a rocket to Mars, the last manned outpost in the solar system, to send a message to the Lima Project in the hopes that Clifford will respond. Pruitt is forced to sit out the remainder of the mission and remain on the moon after stress from a run-in with space pirates on the dark side of the moon sends him into emergency surgery, leaving Roy to go it alone with the crew of the Cepheus escorting him to Mars.


For its first hour and change, AD ASTRA (meaning "to the stars") is an effective reimagining of APOCALYPSE NOW, with Roy sent through the solar system ("upriver") to the Lima Project, now a de facto compound run by his father, who may be a rogue lunatic whose continued existence is a threat to all life everywhere. The exact purpose of the mission doesn't become clear to Roy for some time, but the Heart of Darkness-type set-up only ends up being a bait-and-switch for what slowly morphs into what can best be described as Terrence Malick remaking FIELD OF DREAMS and changing the setting from an Iowa cornfield to outer space. The notion of fractured familial bonds and fathers and sons not seeing eye to eye are recurring motifs in Gray's work going back to LITTLE ODESSA, and the idea of Jones' Clifford putting exploration before his duties as a husband and father echoes Charlie Hunnam's doomed Percy Fawcett in THE LOST CITY OF Z, but the shift in tone here doesn't really work. AD ASTRA had a somewhat troubled production, with shooting initially wrapping in the fall of 2017 followed by some badly-received test screenings that had 20th Century Fox ordering more than one round of reshoots and bumping the release date multiple times. To that end, AD ASTRA has the look and feel of compromise all over it. It's not enough that Gray turns his space-set APOCALYPSE NOW homage into a hard sci-fi FIELD OF DREAMS (and, to a certain extent, Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE, which starred Pitt), but he's also riffing on Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS, Christopher Nolan's INTERSTELLAR, Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, plus the moon buggy chase with space pirates that seems like it's on loan from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. AD ASTRA even finds room for an out-of-nowhere attack by crazed baboons that's straight out of a horror movie with someone getting their face chewed off. Gray's simply juggling too many things here--did a test audience member jokingly scribble "needs a baboon attack" on a feedback card and Fox execs inexplicably latched on to it?--and the film loses its way in the back end.


The end credits are filled with jobs preceded by the word "additional," which is rarely a good sign, and it's been rumored that second-unit director Dan Bradley (who helmed the ill-fated RED DAWN remake several years ago) was responsible for some of the reshoots. If that's the case, Gray's been very diplomatic about it, and regardless of its story deficiencies, AD ASTRA is a technical triumph filled with astonishing visual effects and stunning cinematography, mostly by recent Christopher Nolan collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK), with the great six-time Oscar-nominee Caleb Deschanel credited with "additional photography," presumably because Van Hoytema was working on Nolan's upcoming TENET and wasn't available for reshoots (there's a great shot of a backlit Pitt running that's straight out of Michael Mann's THE KEEP, so bravo to whomever was responsible for that). Pitt, who's in virtually every scene, is excellent, though his performance grows more internalized as the film goes on, with Gray relying far too much on Roy's voiceover narration, which would be intentional as part of the APOCALYPSE NOW vibe of the far superior first half, but also seems like it's scrambling to clarify plot points like the original theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. Other than Pitt, everyone's screen time is limited, with Liv Tyler being particularly squandered as Roy's estranged wife and Jones' Clifford not really living up to the Kurtz-esque build-up the film provides him, though Gray makes his fleeting appearances count in the form of the always-unsettling garbled audio and distorted video transmissions. Wait...so add EVENT HORIZON and SUNSHINE to AD ASTRA's crib sheet.




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