Dateworthy? “Ad Astra”

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Is “Ad Astra” worth a trip for your first movie date night of the fall season? Yes!

Brad Pitt’s on quite a roll this year. This highly intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi epic is my choice so far for the movie of the year. It’s packed with stunning visuals and a wondrous score. The movie tells the story of an astronaut embarking on a dangerous mission to find and retrieve his fellow-astronaut father from the edge of the solar system.

“Ad Astra” has deeply spiritual undertones as it tells a “Prodigal Father” tale.

It’s all too rare these days to find science-fiction movies that aren’t simply bombastic superhero flicks or alien-invasion thrillers. “Ad Astra” bravely breaks that mold. It offers a meditative yet mesmerizing astronaut tale.

That description might sound fascinating enough. But where the film really shines is in the surprising fact that Pitt’s search heavily explores the concept of the sins of the father coming to haunt the son.

The film features a multilayered, Oscar-worthy performance by Pitt. It hinges largely on Pitt’s performance as his character, Roy McBride. His mission is largely solitary, and the film relies upon his narration overlaying much of its stunning visuals.

The sins of the father haunting the son

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“Ad Astra” is Latin for “to the stars.” The film opens on a near-future in which life on earth is being threatened by power surges emanating from near Neptune.

NASA believes that the source of the surges is the lead spacecraft of the Lima Mission. It’s a giant expedition that launched thirty years before with the goal of finding conclusively whether extraterrestrial life exists on the other planets of the solar system.

Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was the captain of that mission. As a result, he disappeared from Roy’s life thirty years ago.

Roy was told that his father and his crew had all died as heroes, and found his motivation to be an astronaut himself in his father’s purported heroics.

NASA decides to send a team to find the Lima Mission near Neptune and fire nuclear missiles into it in order to disable the electrical pulses it’s sending to earth. Roy wants to be part of the crew, but he suddenly receives the shocking news from an insider.

His father wasn’t a  hero who died three decades before. Instead, he went dangerously rogue, causing his crew to die when they tried to mutiny and force a return to Earth.

NASA wants to ground him. But Roy executes a daring plan to get on board the rocket heading for his father. He wants to see if he can find a more peaceful way of bringing his father to justice.

What happens from there is utterly riveting for those willing to follow a hyper-intelligent film whose hook is engaging the mind more than throttling the senses.

At my screening, ten people walked out muttering about boredom, while the remaining fifty applauded heartily at its conclusion.

There are two comparisons I can best make to describe the feel of this very unique film. It’s as if legendary yet often-obscure auteur Terence Malick (“Tree of Life,” “The Thin Red Line”) got his hands on $80 million and a script with a coherent plot.

Another way to describe the film? It’s as if “2001: A Space Odyssey” had an ending that made sense.

“Ad Astra” explores the spiritual themes of family and reconciliation 

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“Ad Astra” is co-written and directed by James Gray. He’s making a big-budget leap here after a career in which he’s made nine other films that were critically acclaimed but overlooked at the box office. Among those films was “The Lost City of Z” and four movies with Joaquin Phoenix.

The film lures viewers in through a quietly pulsing, synth-driven score by Thomas Richter. The music feels both high-tech and warmly intimate at the same time. It eases viewers into the concentration required to process the film.

There are some deep emotional and spiritual themes throughout the film. A shocking turn of events lends Roy a sudden understanding of what his father went through in his crisis.

That realization leads to some quietly powerful moments between Pitt and Jones,. Two two are tied by their failures, yet try to establish one last connection before it’s too late.

It’s very much like a Prodigal Son story in reverse. Roy, the son, seeks to welcome back his long-lost father Jones while having the face the question of if it’s too late. Roy is also haunted by thoughts of the wife he left behind on Earth (Liv Tyler), and how his unceasing drive for perfection has caused a rift between them.

Ultimately, “Ad Astra” stands as my choice so far for the movie of the year. Packed with stunning visuals and much to contemplate, yet always rewarding with an enthralling plot, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.