So Ad Astra‘s pretty great, right? We’ve grown so accustomed to these mid-Fall prestige sci-fi movies being cut of a certain mold that this one just went and blindsided us in a few incredibly notable ways.
Don’t get me wrong: this very much is the kind of awards-seeking space movie that Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015) and Arrival (2016) were. It seems pretty clear, at least at this stage in Awards Season, that Brad Pitt is practically guaranteed a slot in the actor race (maybe even two, given the reception of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). The movie itself also seems likely to nab Best Picture nod, although that may be a slightly more unlikely outcome, if its chiefmost competition has anything to say about that.
The thing is, though, that for the kind of movie that this is, it was shockingly unapologetic with some of its pulpier elements. In that way, it actually reminded me a lot of Aquaman (2017): perfectly comfortable in its own generic skin, no matter how goofy or even crazy it might look from the outside. And, just like that movie, there are just some standout moments that you can hardly believe that director James Gray got away with in a serious Fall awards contender. Such as…
There’s a High-Speed Shootout on the Moon. The plot of Ad Astra sees Major Roy McBride (Bras Pitt) venturing to Mars in a desperate attempt to contact H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), his father, to stop a series of devastating electrical surges that threaten to wipe out the people of Earth. Unfortunately, this isn’t a non-stop flight, and McBride is forced into a layover on the Moon. The thing is, though, that outside of a few tourist-heavy Safe Zones, the Moon is in a constant state of war as Earthly nations vie for valuable tracts of land to mine valuable resources from. And, as ever on Earth, these disputed areas have become infested with pirates.
One scene, briefly hinted at in the movie’s trailer, features a high-speed chase scene as McBride and his team are waylaid by pirates en route to their Mars-bound shuttle. It’s a trippy little piece of action, with low-gravity jumps, laser shoot-outs and a few really tricky maneuvers. The craziest thing, though, is that this isn’t even the movie’s climax (like I thought it would be from the advertising). This is just the end of act one, which leads into…
There’s a Zero-G Fight with a Baboon in Space. While traveling between the Moon and Mars, McBride’s ship picks up a distress beacon from a nearby satellite. And, like any good sci-fi movie, the crew is obligated to check out the source of the signal and offer the stranded crew any assistance that they are able to. McBride objects to this, of course, as they have a very specific, high-priority mission to accomplish, although he is eventually overruled by the ship’s actual captain.
They board a medical test satellite, but are unable to locate any of its crew. Eventually, McBride returns to the Captain, only to find that a deranged test animal, a Baboon, has ripped open the man’s space suit and is chomping away at his face. A brief fight between the two ensues, ending in a delightfully Gremlins-esque bit of gore, but it’s a jarring diversion from an otherwise grim-and-gritty sci-fi drama that otherwise seemed content to track McBride’s listless gaze off into distant space while he waxes poetically in monologs about the isolating nature of modern society. Jarring, but more than certainly welcome to keep the proceedings from becoming to dour or predictable. The piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance, however, comes near the end of the movie, when…
Brad Pitt Surfs the Rings of Neptune in Order to Outrun a Nuclear Explosion. Like, seriously, there’s just no coming back from this kind of a climax. This is like Sharknado (2013) blowing up a tornado to get it to stop spinning. It’s absolutely wonderful in every possible way, but it definitely is at odds with what the typical moviegoer probably expected to see when they sat down in the theater, popcorn in hand, to see a likely Best Picture nominee.
So McBride finally comes to his father’s ship in the outer solar system: a derelict vessel orbiting Neptune. And, while there, he reunites with his obsessive, despondent dad. After convincing the old man to pack it in and let him do what he came for — namely, destroying the ship so as to prevent further electrical surges hitting the Earth — they make their way back to McBride’s ship. But his father ultimately decides against that, leading McBride to desperately try to get back to the ship (alone) before he gets caught in the nuclear wake of the older ship blowing up. His solution? Get a makeshift surfboard from some nearby scrap metal and ride the waves out to safety. It’s absolutely insane, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just work with the bizarre, semi-serious tone that the movie has set for itself over the preceding 2 hours.
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