Search:

Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Ad Astra

“Last Blood” and “Abominable” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

With a Latin title and beautiful, quiet shots of the cosmos, it’s easy to get the perception that “Ad Astra” is artsy, trippy, or full of a pretentiousness that makes it inaccessible to the escapist sensibilities of mainstream audiences. By the time our hero Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) battles crazed baboons on a Norwegian space station (a sentence I can’t believe I just wrote) you’ll understand the wrongness of that perception.

Co-writer and director James Gray should have gone all the way with his title and used the popular Latin phrase “Per aspera ad astra,” which means "through hardships to the stars." Hardships there are. In addition to the rampaging primates, McBride also encounters pirates on the moon, bureaucratic treachery, the crew of a spaceship out to kill him, and various expected perils of being in the vacuum of space. But hey, no one told him it would be easy.

Plus he can handle it. “Ad Astra” establishes McBride very well in an opening scene in which he is super high up off of the Earth working on the International Space Antenna. The shots are mesmerizing and beautifully composed. Still, I found myself thinking: “I wouldn’t.” Not only is McBride very brave to do what he does, he remains calm in the face of mortal peril. After McBride finds himself plummeting to Earth when things go pear-shaped, he registers no looks of panic or desperation. In a subsequent scene, it is reported that his pulse rate never climbed above 80. This rings true as it puts McBride in the same league as the American space pioneers of the 1950s and ‘60s. The astronauts in those days were primarily pilots who knew how to stay cool, calm, and collected under pressure. They were the kind of men who could do a test flight in the morning, crash the plane, just barely survive, then be seen filling out accident report paperwork that very same afternoon. McBride is one of them.

While McBride may have the spirit of the pilots of yesteryear, “Ad Astra” takes place in the future—the not too distant future. We see very little of Earth in the movie, but it looks essentially the same as it does now. The opening title screen tells us that the movie takes place in a time of hope and conflict. So, from what I can piece together, it is essentially like now except that we built a space antenna, there are commercial flights to the moon, and there’s an underground base on Mars. There are also comfort rooms for astronauts who do need to be calmed down, but they eerily reminded me of the euthanasia room in “Soylent Green.”

With its blending of science fiction and action, as well as its three-dimensional character development, “Ad Astra” is closer to “Star Trek” than “Star Wars.” But the episodic nature of the mission to eliminate a power surge from the planet Neptune that is threatening life on Earth is more akin to “Apocalypse Now” (or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for you more literary folks out there). Roy McBride’s father, Dr. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is suspected to be at the source of the surge and perhaps even the cause of it, is very much a mythical, rogue, Kurtz-esque character, for those following along with the analogy.

For those unfamiliar with the above reference, I will say two things: 1) See “Apocalypse Now” immediately, and 2) know that “Ad Astra” is an epic journey through the cosmos that uses imagination to whisk us away along with it. The main character of Roy McBride may spend most of his time in space, but he is exceptionally well grounded, and some of the visuals are awe-inspiring. If still none of this appeals to you then I have two words that make this movie worthwhile: Crazed baboons. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Last Blood

“Last Blood” is such a good title. It calls back to the title of the movie in which we first met psychologically scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone): “First Blood.” This is an important note because the titles of the three movies between the bookends of “First Blood” and “Last Blood” all go by some variation of “Rambo.” “Last Blood” brings John Rambo home, both in title and in setting.

Thing were going well for him too. He was living a quiet life on his late father’s ranch in Arizona, which he shared with a friend of his named Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her teenage granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), and on which he dug a series of interconnected tunnels much like the Viet Cong that he fought so many decades ago.

These tunnels of course come in handy for what we all wait the entire movie to see: John Rambo as a one-man army taking on scores of enemies. At this, “Last Blood” does not disappoint. Some of the kills in the movie are so brutal and creative that they border on something out of a slasher movie.

But before the big showdown and all the carnage we get to catch up with Rambo and re-familiarize ourselves with him as a character. We see what he’s been up to and learn that he is still struggling with the demons inside of him from all of the battles he’s fought, from Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Burma, and now--just like in the first movie--at home. It’s a great reminder that before Rambo became a larger than life action hero, he was a man trying to come home again. He did…for a little while. Rent it.

Abominable

I’ll give credit to Dreamworks for “Abominable” in creating an animated feature that isn’t a sequel or spin off or reboot. I also appreciate the fact that it takes place in China, with characters who look Chinese, and it embraces Chinese culture and landscape. But just because it’s new, that doesn’t mean it’s original.

The same old tropes are present, just with new dressing. Since this movie is aimed at children, the protagonist is teenage Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet), who discovers a big and hairy yet cute and cuddly yeti who she names Everest (voice of Joseph Izzo) after where he’s from. He needs to return home, but of course stock evil rich guy (voice of Eddie Izzard) and a shady zoologist (voice of Sarah Paulson) want to capture Everest for themselves and the race is on.

As if having all of these standard children’s animated movie story points wasn’t dull enough, Everest has the supernatural ability to communicate with the Earth and do things like make plants grow, make blueberries get super huge (in a scene that would not be out of place in a “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movie), and turn earth into water. This sounds cool on paper, but in execution it allows the writers to be lazy. Any time the characters are written into a corner or in a perilous situation, they can just have Everest use his superpowers to get out of it. It made an already boring and typical movie even more boring. Once the cuteness of Everest wears off, I can see even little children—the movie’s target audience—checking out of the movie the same way I did. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Trick,” about a no-nonsense detective who tries to track down a serial killer named Trick, who is terrorizing a small town, starring Jamie Kennedy, Tom Atkins, and Omar Epps; “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” a slice of life story that follows a large Italian family on Christmas Eve as they prepare for the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes, reminisce about the past, and seek love in the future, with Joe Pantoliano; and “Spider in the Web,” in which a young operative is sent on a mission to follow an older agent whose behavior has come into question, starring Monica Bellucci and Ben Kingsley.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

Cron Job Starts