To the stars!
January 25, 2020 - Saturday 4:01 AM by E.R. Nartatez
I’ve become very picky when it comes to movies. More selective, critical and unforgiving. When I watch a movie, I’m fully engaged; I get inside the story and into the characters, and I let the story and the characters get inside me. I watch to experience and not just to be entertained. A great movie time for me is to sit in a cinema that’s virtually empty and get fully engrossed in a compelling film that has the power to provoke and stimulate both mind and soul. Unfortunately, the opportunity for such a treat is getting few and far between. I find spending precious time glued on a film that’s tasteless and thoughtless unforgivable. Sadly, most movies coughed up by Hollywood today are in the tasteless and thoughtless genre.
But at times Hollywood does redeem itself. And it just did with ‘Ad Astra’ (featuring Brad Pitt). Pitt is just brilliant here!
[Spoiler alert! I will try my best to be discreet.]
Pitt portrays a very complex character and plays it with depth and nuance—almost flawless—showcasing his finely tuned skill as an actor. One of his best!
It’s a sci-fi genre (not the ‘Star Wars’ variety) with rich and philosophically deep themes, and masterfully incarnated in the film’s characters.
Roy McBride (Pitt) is a first-class astronaut, highly trained and experienced, and known for his phenomenal ability of keeping his cool under extreme pressure. But if his career is flying high his marriage has crashed. He’s estranged from his wife (‘Eve’, Liv Tyler). Roy is distant, cold, and emotionless much like his passion—outer space. Eve leaves; she’s just too “down to earth” for Roy. Though in a rare moment, Roy reveals his buried feelings exposing a deeper conflicted soul beneath the cold, calculating, mechanical surface.
Towards his colleagues, Roy puts up a face of a regular, dependable teammate. All the while his inner thoughts and feelings detests their presence. He would rather be out there, spacewalking alone in the vastness of space. Beneath the cool and calm there’s also an inner rage within him. All these suppressed contradictions really go back to his father.
Roy’s impeccable reputation is not lost to SpaceCom (Space Command). They call on him for a very important mission; a mission that may just possibly save life on planet earth.
Recently, earth is being savaged by extremely powerful energy surges coming from outer space, from the distant planet Neptune, leaving massive deaths and destruction on its wake. And the surges keep coming with increasing power, threatening the entire planet. Authorities believe they’ve identified the problem. The power surges are Neptune’s explosive reactions due to an antimatter device, made and transported there by—you guessed it—human space exploration. They’ve met the enemy, and it’s they!
Almost 3 decades ago, the "Lima Project" was launched. Its mission was to push deep into the far reaches of the Solar System to search for intelligent life. The project was captained by the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy’s father. But something went wrong; the “Project” got ‘lost in space’. Earth has not heard from McBride for more than a decade. The Project was thought lost and the entire crew dead. For many years Roy believed that his father was dead and gone. Truth be told, his father ‘died’ even before the Lima Project was launched. He was a man driven to his cause—at the expense of his family. His life was his work—exploring outer space, leaving his family far down behind.
But SpaceCom commanders suspect that his father was still alive and that it’s the Project’s presence near Neptune that’s causing the surges. True to his character, Roy takes the news calmly and objectively. They sent him to a base on Mars to communicate to his father hoping that McBride would respond to his son so they can pinpoint the exact location and send a team to locate it.
But Roy must stopover on the moon. The moon has become some sort of a vacation resort complete with malls, escalators, subway trains—simply more of what’s already on earth but less glamorous. But other areas are contested and extremely dangerous. Armed pirates wait in ambush for those who happen to stray in these remote areas.
Roy is accompanied by his father's old friend and associate Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). Pruitt was to oversee the mission and carefully observe Roy’s fitness. The conversation between Pruitt and Roy reveal another layer of mystery about Roy and his father; Roy is like his father. Pruitt suspects that space exploration may just be a façade of an attempt to escape from the inability to embrace the limitations of earthly, human existence.
Roy views his father’s last video message to him. McBride goes into this speech about the greatness of his mission, and even expresses a religious feeling of being nearer to God as they go deeper into space. Ironic that the further away he was from humanity the closer he feels towards God (contrast this with Jesus’ teaching that to love God was to love your fellow human and that love of God is seen in loving the other—even loving the enemy!). McBride says that he misses and loves Roy, but then later this would be exposed as empty words.
An armed conflict with pirates badly hurts Pruitt who had to stay put for a medical emergency. Roy flies off to Mars alone. He gets to Mars (with a tragic incident along the way) and is welcomed by the base director Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga). Frustrated after many attempts, Roy breaks protocol and sends a personal message to his dad. Mission administrators disqualified and orders him home. But Lantos meets with Roy and tells him a gruesome detail of what happened to the Project. Her parents were on board McBride’s ship and were killed. She wants to know what happened. She conspires with Roy, helping him get to the ship Cepheus about to launch to Mars.
Roy successfully enters the ship via a “backdoor”. But another powerful surge and the altercation between Roy and the crew left him alone on its way to Mars. Days and weeks in solitude, far from home and far from any human soul—from anything familiar to him as a human being—takes its toll. He thought he liked being alone in space, but he realizes this is really not what he wants. This is not his home.
He reaches his father’s ship. With some difficulty he was able to get inside. He sees dead bodies frozen and floating about. He then sets up the nuclear explosive to destroy the entire ship. But a familiar voice calls out to him; it’s his father!
Old and hard of seeing, McBride tells his son the truth. He and his crew carefully analyzed the massive amount of data they’ve gathered and concluded that there’s no other conscious and intelligent life in the galaxy—we’re all alone! The crew wanted to turn back; they missed home, they missed loved ones. But for McBride, this was a one-way ticket—there was no going back! He was becoming more like a programmed machine; less human. He admits to Roy he never had any desire go home. Outer space is his home, his family.
Roy understood this, for he was becoming more like his father. But recent events turned him around; he’s had an epiphany about life that led him to reembrace his humanity, his personhood, the loved one he left on earth, and his true home. He invites his dad to come home with him. His dad insists Roy must join him to go to ‘infinity and beyond’ to complete the mission. Roy patiently convinces his dad he’s accomplished his mission; he’s proved that there’s no other conscious life in the entire galaxy.
Just when Roy thought he’s saved his father, McBride pushes Roy away and pleads he be left alone in space; this was where he belonged. Roy had to make a choice; he chose home—to earth—to those that still know what it means to give and receive love.
Roy detonates the nuclear bomb and uses its force to propel Cepheus to reach back to. He musters all his hope and faith to believe he can still make it back home.
Through pain and tragedy Roy is redeemed. His willingness to sacrifice his life—to die to his autonomous self—to know and embrace truth not only saved life on earth, but his own humanity as well and all that he truly loved, something that he has buried and suppressed deep within him for so long.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
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