Brad Pitt space odyssey in ‘Ad Astra’
‘Downton Abbey’ film is stately but too safe
* “Ad Astra” — Having stayed rigorously close to his native New York for much of his career, writer-director James Gray has lately been making up for lost time. His last film, “The Lost City of Z,” journeyed into the Amazon, circa early 20th century. His latest, “Ad Astra,” skitters across the solar system like a stone skipped through space.
Both films aren’t merely changes in setting. They’re inherently about leaving home — the sacrifice entailed, the wonders to be discovered, the cost of obsessions that require pursuit. It’s fitting that they follow Gray’s masterpiece, “The Immigrant,” a profound and melancholic tale of passage. Whether orbiting New York or Neptune, Gray has been on the move for some time.
“Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in the near future, is easily the most expensive production yet for Gray (“We Own the Night,” ”Two Lovers“). Its timing is fortuitous. Coming on the heels of Pitt’s radiant performance in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Ad Astra” seems almost like an encore amid all the (deserved) celebration of its lead performer.
But “Ad Astra,” more intimate than it is majestic, is much more than a rocket-fueled vehicle for its star. It’s a ruminative, mythical space adventure propelled by father-son issues of cosmic proportions. Pitt’s Roy McBride is ordered to the far reaches of the solar system to make contact with his previously presumed dead father, a legendary space explorer named H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
He’s feared to have gone mad, and is suspected of having something to do with power surges playing havoc with Earth’s electronics. In the film’s staggering first moments, McBride is working on a miles-high antenna, like Jack on a beanstalk to the sky, when a surge sweeps over it. Explosions follow and McBride plummets through the stratosphere.
“Ad Astra” is mapped like “Apocalypse Now.” Instead of an ominous, top-secret trek down a Vietnamese river toward Colonel Kurtz, McBride is hopping between planetary stations en route to another missing hero-turned-psychopath, with a mission to potentially search and destroy. That this is Roy’s father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a youngster, adds significantly to the implications of the journey.
Pitt’s astronaut is a solitary figure, taciturn and cool under pressure. Much of the charisma he so effortlessly displayed in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” has gone into hiding, replaced with a more pensive and subtle performance. His space voyage comes in contact with a handful of colorful figures, all of them underused (Donald Sutherland, Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, a pair of rabid space baboons). But Roy’s chiefly in dialogue with himself and the old video transmissions from his father.
In copious amounts of voice over and frequent confessional-like psychological evaluations, Roy narrates his psychological voyage through the stars. “I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important,” he says early in the film, pledging his devotion to the mission. It’s a line that will come to mean something else to Roy as he gets further and further from home (he leaves behind an ex-wife, played by Liv Tyler), and goes deeper and deeper into his — and his father’s — obsessions.
Where I think “Ad Astra” misses the mark is in so closely marrying its subtext with its text. Roy is navigating his relationship to his absent father both literally and figuratively. Daddy issues, alone, can take you only so far, even if it’s to Neptune. Aside from verging on the one-note, that focus constricts the very linear, very self-contained “Ad Astra,” a taut but inflexible chamber piece in a genre given to symphony.
Gray has a gift for shrinking massive set pieces and enlarging private dramas. In “Ad Astra,” he travels 2.7 billion miles through space. It’s a long way to go for a talk with your dad, but a fair distance for uncovering a ray of hope in a lifeless void.
“Ad Astra,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language. Running time: 124 minutes. Three stars out of four.
AP Film Writer
* The “Downton Abbey” movie isn’t exactly a movie. It’s more like another season of the popular “Masterpiece Classic” show that’s been condensed to 90 minutes instead of 8 hours.
Written by series creator Julian Fellowes, almost every character who made it out of the six season run alive is back for their big screen debut with their own little arc and some lavish costume changes. But Michael Engler’s direction doesn’t bring any cinematic grandeur to this continuing story of a family and their servants. And Fellowes’ script has the impossible task of giving every character their own mini plot, as if focusing in on one or a few would have had fans of the other members of the very large ensemble up in arms. Together it makes “Downton Abbey” the movie a fairly shallow experience: All set dressing and nostalgia and some delicious Dowager Countess one-liners.
For “Downton” devotees, the crumbs might be enough. For anyone else just dropping in, however, “Downton Abbey” doesn’t exactly stand on its own.
The tidy reason for this big reunion is that King George V and Queen Mary have decided to spend a night at Downton Abbey as part of a royal tour. It’s 1927 and the aristocratic class is continuing to question their place in a modernizing Britain, but there are just enough of the old traditions left that the news of this royal visit sends the estate into a tizzy. When the royal entourage descends, the downstairs staff is horrified to learn that they’ll be sitting on the sidelines for the visit. The royals travel with cooks, footmen, butlers, valets and dressers and this group is especially dismissive of the provincial Downton employees.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) even decides to enlist the help of their retired Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carson), when she feels like his successor Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t equipped to handle this high profile occasion.
It is always lovely spending time in such lush surroundings. But the movie could have benefited on a little focus and not so much fan service, especially considering how good all of the ensemble actors are in these roles.
Besides, if the camera movements and swelling music cues are any indication, there is only real star anyway: Downton Abbey itself.
“Downton Abbey,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG for “thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language.” Running time: 90 minutes. Two stars out of four.
AP Film Writer