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What Went Wrong With… Ad Astra?

A review of Ad Astra by What Went Wrong Or Right With...?

Space Movies can easily be sorted into three categories: Sci-Fi that is primarily focussed on action, thrills, or horror (Alien, Life, Event Horizon), weighty (and wannabe weighty) films which are only superficially Sci-Fi (2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact), or “real-life” Space Movies which purport to be so realistic that NASA trips over itself to say they approve of it (Gravity, First Man, Apollo 13). Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) apparently wants to be in both these latter categories with its director, producer, and co-writer James Gray saying he wanted the film to be “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie”. This aim isn’t exactly achievable; since this film is set in the future, we can’t say for certain if the representation is accurate. The story aside from being about the future of space travel, is also about fathers and sons which places it firmly in the second category, but unfortunately, as it attempts to straddle both the “realistic” and “weighty” Space Movie groups, it fails to deliver on either.

The premise of Ad Astra is quite straight-forward: in the “near future” astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) travels to the Moon, Mars, and eventually Neptune to find his missing astronaut father Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones) whose experiment has begun to threaten the solar system by creating something called “The Surge”, a cosmic ray that causes power surges, outages, and explosions. This film is described online as “unravelling a mystery” and “uncovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and its place in the cosmos” but this is blowing the plot out of all proportion. The film begins in a potentially focussed and somewhat captivating way; we’re told about the Top Secret “Lima Project” and its intention to find extraterrestrials or intelligent life but then there’s the unneeded addition of anti-matter technology. So is it the anti-matter that’s causing “The Surge” and if so, why didn’t they test it before they sent it far away from Earth with a commander who is possibly mentally unstable? And is it Clifford who is sabotaging the anti-matter? Well, it seems that nobody cares too much about The Surge during the final act, and as the film turns into an Interstellar-esque ode to family relationships, love (and in this case feelings of abandonment) all of the initial build-up is made redundant.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The film’s pace, even during the start, is slow and brooding and I was fine with that tone up until Pitt landed on the moon. Slow can be somewhat alluring (Silent Running for instance) and in a 1970s-way, the pace up until the moon landing was quite intriguing. The further the film got however, the more it decelerated, it began plodding along, until it became a wannabe sentimental drama with the final depressing anticlimax where we discover we’re alone in the universe.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, the script has some interesting observations about the human species. There’s some commentary about commercialisation for instance, namely the commercialisation of the Moon. Looking at all the fast food chains and vending machines on the lunar surface, Pitt’s character says (when referring to humans) “we’re world eaters” which is a perfect description. There’s also a subplot about the moon being a “war-zone” with pirates (and possibly companies and/or the military) fighting over natural resources; another decent comment about humans and our nature to deplete resources and bleed our environment dry. In this slightly bleak future, we even have a man-bun hipster on Mars, although I think that’s less social commentary and more lazy work by the hair and make-up department.

Speaking of lazy, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland both appear in Ad Astra and so does Liv Tyler (very briefly). The two old actors are ripped directly out of Space Cowboys and Liv Tyler is of course, from Armageddon which is some of the most inert casting I’ve seen.

Directed by James Gray (The Yards, The Lost City Of Z) this film is… err… slightly bland looking. I have to confess, after taking a quick glance at his filmography, I’ve never watched a “James Gray” movie. I assume his films have that “indie” look because Ad Astra is essentially a blockbuster made to look like an Art House film. If you’re a fan of that characteristic, simplistic, slow-burning, independent-film aesthetic, then you’re in for a treat. I, on the other hand, was not convinced of this style.

In terms of acting, Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride quite well. Critics have applauded Pitt’s performance and although he shows some abilities during the scene in which he records a personal message to his father, the character of a calm, inward, repressive astronaut with a low resting heartbeat isn’t exactly demanding, so I’m not sure why there’s so much praise directed toward the man. This film also stars Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos, someone born away from Earth and whose parents have been affected by Clifford McBride’s actions and Loren Dean as the most inept space-scientist-slash-astronaut of all time. Whilst on the topic of Loren Dean, he and the rest of his incompetent crew seem to exist simply to move the plot forward (to get Pitt and Jones alone together) and the story-line suffers because of these two-dimensional characters.

Ad Astra is both portentous and pretentious, to the point that I can feel the shadow of Interstellar looming over this film. This is yet another wannabe deep yet dull Space Movie. The problem with Interstellar was that it wanted to be both a tale about space exploration and connections between father and daughter but it didn’t really hone in on either; enough to make you care about finding new worlds for humans to inhabit or the cosmic connection between souls and dimensions. Ad Astra similarly finds itself wanting to say something meaningful about humans, the human condition, and family, whilst simultaneously trying to make the audience care about space. Unfortunately, neither goal is met.

A film such as Alien was set in deep space but it enthralled the audience with atmosphere and peril, a film such as Apollo 13 recounted a real-life story and in doing so made you care about the characters, but Ad Astra is neither an action thriller nor a docudrama, so it quite frankly bores you. This is odd given some of the scenes; Pitt has to enter a rocket before it takes off… but there’s no peril, there’s escaped laboratory baboons eating human limbs… but they don’t scare you, there’s a fight between the crew where Brad Pitt’s character is almost killed… but that doesn’t exactly qualify as action, Tommy Lee Jones’ character is doing a Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now)… but it’s almost ignored. Ad Astra meanders around the cosmos trying to find something profound to say as it tries to shoehorn a plot about experiments into a father-son relationship drama (with Pitt literally letting go of the attachment he has to his dad during the finale – oh, how clever). We have some lines that sound meaningful; “he could only see what was not there, he missed what was right in front of him” – but you think to yourself, wasn’t that the mission’s objective? An astronaut who gets despondent because he fails to discover intelligent life is quite idiotic. It’s like all those involved in S.E.T.I. wanting to commit suicide. All this would be perfectly fine had the movie been told in a passionate way from start to finish, but with Pitt’s monotone narration, the films begins with a physical objective but ends with an emotional one, but you couldn’t care less about either from around the mid-point. Ad Astra is very much the Interstellar of 2019; it doesn’t grab you, it doesn’t excite you, and it doesn’t dazzle you, but it’s overrated by critics nevertheless. Similar to Roy McBride, my heart rate remained low for the entire 123 minute running time.

Nec siderum.

Writing: 4/10

Directing: 4/10

Acting: 5/10

Overall: 4/10

5 replies »

  1. I have no intention of watching this film now. When you wrote “Apollo 13 recounted a real-life story” I had to snigger. I’m a disbeliever, no-ones been to the Moon, NASA lies. Maybe someone ought to make a film about that, it may not be so dull and painful to watch. The truth is out there lol.
    10/10 for this article though saved me a few pounds.

    • To be fair, I didn’t say it was “painful to watch”. The first half is watchable, the second half is disappointing.

      And BTW it was Apollo 11 that (allegedly) went to the moon, Apollo 13 had to sling-shot past it and come back to earth. You should watch Capricorn One, that was a brilliant film that tackled the conspiracy in an around-about way.

    • Well… old Hollywood’s done it again. I betcha there is an Overlord of Hollywood that sits in the back of science fiction movie meetings, and just when everyone agrees that the newest movie will be sane and make no basic science mistakes… avoiding the title of “B Movie”… the Overlord speaks up and says “No! Put bad science in… no matter if it’s 1957 or 2019! That way, we capture the laugh-at-the-movie-because-you’re-a-scientist crowd!” And sure enough, that’s what Ad Astra has done– 18 more SpaceBucks from me and Barbara.

      My title? Dis-Astra.

      Why? Well, lemme tell ya…

      1. The first three visual scenes are all from “2001”– the eye of Hal, a turning Earth, a shaking Brad Pitt in a space helmet. Already, pretentiousness fills the air. Can no modern space-is-important-and-slow movie get past “2001” motifs!? So I thought to myself, “at least they didn’t start with chimps flailing around.” Ah, but just wait.
      2. Brad Pitt is cool. So cool that, apparently in this movie, his “pulse has never been above 80.” That’s… really cool.
      3. So Earth gets blasted by a gamma ray or something, from Neptune, where Brad’s father, Tommy Lee Jones, went to look for aliens. Not a robot… Tommy Lee. This journey took 13 years according to the movie. Brad Pitt later does the same journey in 78 days, from Mars… according to the same movie.
      4. They want to send Brad to Mars in order to send a “coded laser message” to his Dad, to ask him what’s going on. This is voiced in terms of it being the fastest way. Excuse me, but wouldn’t that mean that Brad has to get to Mars faster than a laser (speed of light) would?
      5. So they go to the Moon first (just like “2001”). There, someone says, quote, “it’s a Full Moon, so most of the journey to the (farside) moonbase will be in the dark.” Excuse me, but how can there be a Full Moon… on the Moon? Am I missing something? Did basic science change while I was in the theater?
      6. Then, they have a Lunar Rover shootout on the Moon, but Brad gets to the rocket, launches it, and off they go to Mars. It’s a neat-looking rocket, looks like a Saturn V… even though on a real Saturn V, most of the lower stages would be long-gone by now. Oh well.
      7. During the trip from the Full Moon to Mars, all of a sudden they get an SOS from space. It’s a bioresearch ship. So they go, after a mild argument about who is Captain etc. Hold for the monkeys! Yep, in a complete suspension of rational belief, they go aboard this spaceship, and promptly get attacked by two baboons. Real baboons. Nothing to do with the story, but what the hey. By now, we have got our money’s worth by the way.
      8. Just when they get close to the Red Planet, Tommy Lee sends another gamma ray blast, and disables the autopilot. So Brad Pitt, who is really, really cool, manually lands the Saturn V on Mars. And not just any old spot on the surface… on a landing pad. A Saturn V. Yep.
      9. Now we’re on the Mars base. Guess what color it is? Yep, all shades of rust, dust, and red. Wouldn’t you think by now, with all the Mars-Is-Red movies, someone would have sent a Sherwin-Williams color scheme and paint buckets up there? Nope. It’s still all rust, dust, and red. This is government, high-bucks property we’re talking about. Dusty, rusty, red.
      10. Here on Mars, we get let into the secret that the SpaceForce thinks that Tommy Lee went bonkers. So Brad sends him the laser-coded message, and goes off-script a bit, so the Space Force tells him he cannot go to Neptune to see his Dad (meanwhile, I’m still thinking this will take 13 years, wondering if they are going to use the everyone-goes-to-cryosleep trick). So what happens? Even though this is a Martian SpaceForce base, a helpful woman, who after telling Brad it’s his “burden” while Brad is wearing white with a white-background room (get it– “white man’s burden”? which I found amusing), helps Brad go across the Martian landscape in what looks like a Toyota pickup truck, to a person-hole cover (can’t say manhole anymore), to an underground Martian lake, to the bottom of an even bigger spaceship than the Saturn V just as they are lighting the gigantomundo rocket engines, but Brad gets inside, sends off an alarm, then the other three crewmembers (Three. Not twenty– for a mission I am still thinking is going to take 13 years. Three– hope they get along!), they come down to get him, and even though he tries to tell them they are friendly, a zero-G karate, knife, and yes, gun-in-a-spaceship altercation happens, and within a minute, only Brad is left alive. Hopefully, in the 13 year journey, he knows how to play Solitaire….
      11. But for some reason, it takes 78 days, during which Brad starts going a bit bonkers, which Hollywood shows by disfragmented out-of-time-sequence scenes, you know the deal, and other scenes where he is sleeping in zero-G by just floating around, no bed, straps, or anything. His pulse, though, stays below 80.
      12. He finally gets to Neptune. He flies from his ship to Tommy Lee’s, and of course the “pod bay doors” do not open, so he has to ditch the shuttle craft and go in himself. Once inside, he goes through a couple of rooms that look just like “2001” and then he meets his Dad. But his Dad does not want to go back with him. Thirteen years of alone-time in space have made him a changed man. Tommy Lee gets a number of Oscar-worthy lines, and then when Brad clips them together and goes back outside, Tommy Lee unclips himself, goes flying away, Brad catches him, Tommy Lee says let me go, Brad either does or doesn’t, but Tommy Lee goes spinning off into space… just like “2001” did.
      13. Brad, though, wants to go home. He gets a shield from the solar panels, like Captain America, and aims himself at his other, very very distant spaceship, of course on the other side of the scientifically accurate Neptunian rings. What’s the shield for you might ask? Well… to keep all the rocks in those rings from hitting him! But not once do they send him off-course. He has a little rocket on his backpack, and hits his spaceship at like 80 mph, which made me wonder… why didn’t he just turn around a bit?
      14. For the grand finale, Brad has put a timed nuclear bomb on Tommy Lee’s spaceship, to destroy the ship for some reason, even though they found no evidence of alien life. No squids, no blobs, no bacteria or ET, nothing. He states, I will return to Earth by riding the nuclear explosion blast. Now, I’m no physicist, but I am guessing at this point that to travel 2 billion miles back to Earth, this is equal to someone bouncing a pebble, or maybe to be fair a firecracker, off me to send me from NY to California.

      Thank you again, Overlord Of Hollywood. I needed a good laugh.

    • Agree with a lot of this. Particularly the red interiors on Mars. A few natural light LED bulbs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

      BTW you can say “manhole”, you can also say “utility hole” or “maintenance hole” but nobody says “person hole” except for people needlessly complaining about political correctness.

  2. I loved this article. Completely sums up my feelings about the film in every aspect. Honestly the music is what made it insufferable for me. The annoying sub-plots were even less enjoyable when the melancholy music behind it was drowning my ears of any emotion whatsoever. I felt like Roy becoming disinterested with every scene and just moving from place to place with little context. I remember at the end wishing the main character would’ve finished his “life is meaningless” line and then dying after being stuck in space by his father. The whole ending is completely unjustified. it never deserved that, happy ending?

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