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.
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.