MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Ad Astra is set in the near future, when space exploration has expanded beyond Jupiter and there are commercial flights to space stations. Since these were both seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I guess you could say that this movie takes place in the future and the past! To be sure, Ad Astra is evocative of the 1968 Stanley Kubrick science fiction film, but it also resembles Francis Ford Coppola’s 1978 movie Apocalypse Now. In that film, the main character (and narrator) is sent on a mission in Vietnam to encounter a solitary military captain who had gone AWOL.
This film borrows the leisurely pacing of 2001 and the spoken narration from Apocalypse Now to recount the interplanetary voyage of Roy McBride (Pitt), traveling to investigate if an earlier space exploration to Neptune (named The Lima Project) is responsible for a series of anti-matter surges that are knocking out power and killing thousands of people on Earth. In this case, the captain of The Lima Project was Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Jones). Roy is almost certain that his father has died, but the urgency of the mission compels him to accept the assignment.
That’s the setup for this movie, if you want to take the voyage. To its credit, Ad Astra is not shy about mentioning God’s presence in the universe as well as the unique relationship of humanity to Earth and our search for intelligent life beyond our planet. The film is also a story about a father and a son and the ways in which children can carry with them the very qualities of their parents that are the most upsetting (“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” – Ezekiel 18:2)
The film does a great job comparing the smallness of civilization with the vastness of the universe and there are several noteworthy theological insights gained along the way. Brad Pitt’s performance is nuanced and heartfelt and he serves the story well as its Everyman. The computer-assisted cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (who did similar magic in 2014’s Interstellar) is stunning and the almost-continuous musical score by Max Richter is noteworthy.
The one thing missing from Ad Astra is mystery. While folks are still debating the meaning of 2001, writer-director James Gray explains everything! (And this is done primarily through Roy McBride’s narration.) These are significant musings about God, family, and stewardship of our planet, but I saw no need to spell everything out in such detail. Having everything summarized in plain language does makes a film easier to discuss with older children as well as people who cannot abide ambiguity. It just seems that whenever a writer or filmmaker senses urgency, they dumb things down to make sure that everyone gets the point. With such clarity, the viewer will decide whether they agree or disagree with the thesis. Mystery refuses easy answers to profound questions.
I like mystery more.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A space epic that is out of this world but also down to earth.
One pitchfork: Some violent encounters, including deaths; occasional swearing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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