REVIEW: Ad Astra

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Sunday, October 6, 2019

Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Runtime: 123 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      One of the more intriguing trends in cinematic history is how outer space movies have artistically and technologically evolved along with mankind’s understanding of what is beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The highlights of this nearly 120-year progression include Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1961), and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) to name a few. Though each of these directors had vastly different levels of information about outer space and technological means at their disposal, these films are unforgettable due to how ambitious they are in scope and spectacle relative to their time period. Outer space seems to be an unbounded three-dimensional canvas upon which the director’s imagination can take shape, and, consequently, I look forward to these types of films. Director James Gray (The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) now takes his first venture ad astra (“to the stars”) with Brad Pitt aboard the vessel. Do they reach escape velocity or come crashing back down to Earth?

      In this near-future vision of humankind, powerful electromagnetic pulses are terrorizing the solar system, threatening the safety of all life. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) of the United States Space Command (SpaceCom) is tasked with traveling to SpaceCom’s Mars base and establishing communication with the source of the radiation, a deep space expedition in orbit around Neptune commanded by McBride’s father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) that SpaceCom lost contact with years ago. The younger McBride is chosen for this critical mission due not only to his personal connection but because of his borderline inhuman ability to stay calm under taxing circumstances. Essentially, the plot boils down to a complex, mysterious figure of questionable moral fiber that our protagonist must journey to and confront à la Apocalypse Now or, more recently, Silence. Despite the intriguing premise, I, much like this movie, do not have a whole lot to say.

      There is nothing meaningful at the core of this movie. It is all atmosphere with no substance. Brad Pitt gives a convincing performance as a man who has emotionally detached himself from all personal relationships, but those relationships are simply left undeveloped. Despite the slow plot progression in the first two acts, I was still engaged as I was expecting a satisfying payoff with how much hype was built up around McBride facing his father. Though I am not going to spoil anything, the payoff makes little sense and did not leave me content. Making matters worse, the third act of this movie is where everything devolves into silliness and the middle fingers to the laws of physics start getting pulled out in full force. It was hard to take seriously at a few different points of action because of how nonsensical the characters’ actions on screen are. Maybe in a movie with a different tone, these decision would not have been issues, but my immersion was repeatedly broken in the later stages of the plot. The next overarching issue is the movie’s over-reliance on voiceover. I understand how the film’s exposition is restricted by Brad Pitt being alone in space for a large portion of the runtime, and the writing team felt the need to keep feeding the audience something. It is just unnecessary as you rarely receive any additional insights into the character that could not be surmised from previous scenes, and, consequently, it borders on annoying for much of the movie. Furthermore, the pacing is not consistent as large jumps in time are made at different points in the plot and certain sequences feel unnecessarily included, reaching the point where it feels as though the writers did not know how to string all their ideas together to make the story cohesive. Finally, I must mention that if you came into Ad Astra looking for a hard science fiction film, you will leave disappointed as this is a character study merely set in a scientifically fictitious future; the film has no intriguing science fiction elements beyond there being a Subway on the moon and certain people having lived on Mars their entire lives.

      Though far from visionary as science fiction, Ad Astra is not entirely devoid of attempts at intriguing characterization and statements. The most interesting dimension that the film has to offer is McBride’s development from this exceedingly calm-under-pressure soldier who suppresses all emotions into a man burdened by unanswered questions who desires catharsis and is willing to make rash decisions. Even then, this development is just so simplistic and surface-level while every other aspect of the film gives off the impression that it thinks it is filled with nuance and introspective complexity. In a broader context, the writers endeavor to give a message of some sort about the importance of valuing family in the vastness of the universe where human lives are infinitesimal blips, and it tries to juxtapose the solitude of being alone without one’s family with the greater concept of humans being alone in the universe. These are two interconnected messages that could have been fortified by an increased focus on relational development rather than vague moodiness and incessant aimless monologues.

      All that being said, I must give credit where credit is due. This film looks incredible. Absolutely breathtaking “extraterrestrial” shots abound from master cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar, Dunkirk). Artificial lighting is done particularly well so as to give the illusion of no extraneous light sources in space (it was about the best you can do while still maintaining visibility in every scene). There is an impressive moon rover chase sequence that is unlike any action scene I have ever seen due to how well the Moon’s weak gravity is simulated using a higher frame rate and a multitude of visual effects. If only they cared about simulating lunar gravity accurately indoors as much as they cared about simulating it outdoors, but I digress. The production design is top notch, and I liked the way that the near-future looked on the surface. Overall, the visual presentation reinforces the grandeur of space and how the cosmos overwhelmingly dwarfs Earth and humanity which appropriately reflects the themes of the story.

      I wanted much more out of this movie because of how prepossessing the visual presentation is. Though admittedly pleasant to view, it is merely a superficial and contrived drama. My immersion in the film’s universe was consistently broken by uneven pacing and silly plot points. It is too half-witted to succeed as science fiction and far too underdeveloped as a human commentary. There are no compelling scientific or philosophical ideas at work here, and the human element is severely lacking. It is as if the filmmakers think the content is elevated by simply being in the context of space as evidenced by everything down to the needlessly Latin title. With all that being said, I would still catch this one in theaters as I cannot recommend much else beyond the spectacle. If you are going to see it, see it on the big screen.

comments powered by Disqus