(director/writer: James Gray; screenwriter: Ethan Gross; cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema; editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen; music: Max Richter, Lorne Balfe; cast: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Tommy Lee Jones ( H. Clifford McBride), Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos), Liv Tyler (Eve), Donald Sutherland (Col. Tom Pruitt), Donnie Keshawartz (Captain Lawrence Tanner), LisaGay Hamilton (Adjutant General Vogel), Loren Dean (Donald Stanford), John Ortiz (Lt. General Rivas), John Finn (Brigadier General Stroud), Kimberly Elise (Lorraine Deavers); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan; 20th Century Fox; 2019)

“An ambitious and well-conceived big-budget sci-fi film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title in Latin means ‘to the stars’. It brings on a minimalist narrative about earthly problems and of earth-shattering problems in space, and combines that with a rich thrilling visual moody space ride. The New York-based indie arthouse writer/director James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”/”Two Lovers”) and co-writer Ethan Gross deliver an ambitious and well-conceived big-budget sci-fi film (something not tried before by the auteur, that revolves around an estranged relationship between a hero pioneer astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most decorated ever astronaut, and his intrepid astronaut son Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). Before a military meeting convenes, we witness the stoic Roy regularly getting psychological evaluations, which always confirm his self-control and that his pulse rate never exceeds 80bpm. We also see him heroically shut off the voltage at a power station when it’s struck by out of the world lightning strikes, the same ones that take place throughout the planet. Because these power surges cause a world emergency, the military leaders choose Roy to go on a secret mission to save the world. He’s picked because of his impeccable astronaut qualifications and that he alone is uniquely qualified to find his missing father of 30 years, who had been presumed to be dead by his family but is apparently still alive and is the cause of the power surges. Dad is the sole survivor of the doomed Lima Project, whose mission was to look for extraterrestrials on Neptune. He was the leader of the project who insanely killed the other scientists because they wanted to return to Earth.It’s a provocative film that hits all the right buttons in its execution but without emotionally moving me even as it told such an emotional story. It’s easier for me to think highly of it than love it. Though it’s a terrific film, with an overwhelming performance by Brad Pitt grounding it, but one that is perhaps too distant. It aims to be a space story and at the same time it’s a dark psychological study on flawed patriarchs with problems over alienation, loneliness and lack of communication skills. It tells how such extreme behavior can damage families and society (leaving us believing the son, following in dad’s footsteps, pays for the sins of the father). The story is set in the near future of the late 21st century, whereby space flight is commonplace and the Earth is suddenly experiencing sudden strong cosmic power surges that destroy its stability. This causes the loss of life and utter destruction throughout the Earth. Scientists trace the source of the strange surges to Neptune. The military have proof the dangerous surges are caused by Roy’s father and get assurances from the son that he’s on board with the government’s request for him to send his father messages from Mars to come home. The elderly astronaut Col.Tom Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), who was associated with the father, goes on the mission to help the son try an understand his estranged, uncompromising hero astronaut father. Before reaching the target of Neptune the astronaut stops at a series of manned way stations — the moon being the first stop, which is followed by Mars.

The key scene of the father-son confrontation takes place after a tragic incident in space flight caused by beastly creatures from the moon attacking a space craft leaving the moon. Soon afterwards the son decides he must hijack a rocket to confront his father and leaves Mars in a solo flight to meet dad in Neptune.

When they finally meet, he tearfully listens to dad explain his madman quest and why he deserted his family.

Its many set pieces are all good. For example its “floating-in-space” sequence and the funny mock-horror one of the moon being commercialized (like with Subway franchises) show both great technical ability and a good sense of humor to pull off. The many action sequences compare well with those in recent films such as “Gravity.” The photography by Hoyte Van Hoytemacontains revealing close-up shots, which gives the film the kind of intense intimacy it shoots for. Meanwhile the derivative space film reminds you mostly of the masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey — which is not a bad thing, as it also offers its own intelligent responses to Kubrick’s on space travel.

The key supporting cast members adding to the backstory include Liv Tyler in a small and underused role as Roy’s long-suffering wife. An intense Ruth Negga as someone who has lived all her life on a Martian underground outpost (yikes!). And Donnie Keshawartz as a big-hearted everyman space jockey, who respects hero astronauts and is willing to make the ultimate self-sacrifice to save others.

REVIEWED ON 9/20/2019       GRADE: A-