I really wanted to love this film. Ad Astra’s director and co-writer, James Gray, is clearly a deep thinker and top-echelon visual artist, abundantly evident in 2017’s The Lost City of Z. So I couldn’t wait for his stab at a high-budget, high-concept science fiction film.
But don’t get me wrong. There is still lots to love about As Astra (Latin for “to the stars” – let’s just get that out of the way now). Its depiction of space exploration in the near future is nothing short of brilliant. In Gray’s imagining of it, the good news is that Richard Branson has succeeded in making moon travel safe and widely available. The bad news? The moon is a Wild West of contested property, with lunar rover pirates on the prowl. As Brad Pitt’s voiceover puts it, we’ve recreated on the Moon what we’re running from on Earth.
Gray also puts his cinematographer to superb use. Hoyte Van Hoytema has bestowed his prodigious gifts on some of the best recent sci-fi (Her, Interstellar), as well as visually arresting films in other genres (Spectre, Dunkirk, and Let the Right One In). Van Hoytema succeeds again here, with the best space imagery since Gravity. The exterior shots of the Moon, Mars, and a few of the gas giants need a big screen to do them justice (and, interestingly, incorporated hi-res lunar and Martian rover photographs to make the backdrops more realistic). Meanwhile, the interiors of spacecraft, complete with vivid reflections onto the astronauts’ helmets, can be compared without embarrassment to iconic shots from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Besides a strong cast (more on that later), Gray rounds out his lineup of heavy cinematic hitters with his choice of composer. Max Richter’s score enhanced my favorite film of 2019 so far – Never Look Away – with its Romantic underpinning and affecting surges. For Ad Astra, Richter gives the opening scene of astronauts at work on a massive antenna array a majestic mélange of organ and strings. As the film advances, Richter turns increasingly to synthesizer sounds: sometimes with unsettling beeps and boops, at other times somber.
Ad Astra’s story begins intriguingly. After a harrowing opening sequence of routine space repair going suddenly sideways, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is summoned to an urgent meeting. Antimatter surges from an American spacecraft orbiting Neptune are disrupting power grids on Earth and elsewhere, and could potentially turn catastrophic. Roy is tasked with traveling to a base on Mars – protected from the surges in its below-ground location – to attempt communication with the Neptunian craft. Roy is specially chosen for the job, because it’s thought that the sole survivor on the distant ship is Roy’s father and fellow astronaut, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
And Gray goes even further back, claiming inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, as if it were told from the perspective of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Like Telemachus, Roy has not seen his father for many years, but is obsessed by his absence. Like Odysseus, Clifford has been puffed to mythic status, but if you dig too deeply, you may also find in him more flaws than virtues.
Brad Pitt plays Roy with admirable complexity. A near-legend in his own right for his composure and quick thinking under duress, Roy’s frequent voiceovers belie his superficial glibness. Below his calm surface is a man who loathes the performative nature of being a celebrated astronaut, who regrets trading intimacy for being at the top of his profession.
In Ad Astra, Pitt’s detachment reminds me of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man. Unlike Gosling, however, we start to see cracks in the façade as Roy’s mission advances.
Unfortunately, despite all of this good (if not downright great) stuff, Ad Astra is saddled with an unconvincing middle act plot turn, upon which the final act completely hinges.
Just as negatively, the film’s tone is inconsistent. With Brad Pitt’s voiceover, it seems to be aiming for a contemplative style à la Tarkovsky’s Solaris or most any film by Terrence Malick. But the thrilling scenes that pop up regularly in Ad Astra’s first 75 minutes give it the feel of one of Christopher Nolan’s better “action films with a message,” such as Inception or Interstellar. For me, these two competing urges never gel.
Similarly, Ad Astra’s pace flags markedly in its final act. Though it has an effective coda, its climax is bland and predictable.
Besides bringing this film several paces short of greatness, these flaws are disappointing, because Gray’s film is chock-full of ideas worth thinking hard upon. The father/son dynamic here is a classic one: the son longing for his dad’s approval, while fretting simultaneously that he’s doomed to enact the same flaws. Do we inevitably become our parents, or can we transcend this cycle?
In addition, the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life that took Clifford to the edge of our heliosphere is a stand-in for humanity’s search for the divine. (Ad Astra is suffused with religious language, so you can’t miss it.) Clifford’s character demonstrates how this quest can make a person create evidence where there is none, and how a higher spiritual purpose can easily morph into grandiose narcissism. Almost as tragically, such a religious pseudo-calling can blind us to the beauty and love that’s right in front of our noses.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )