Ad Astra, 2019.
Directed by James Gray.
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, John Ortiz, Greg Bryk, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, John Finn, Donnie Kershawarz, Justin Dray, Sasha Compère and Natasha Lyonne.
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.
Ad Astra is mostly a thoughtful, engrossing and pretty decent film about space and space travel in the near future. Like other recent films in this vein, such as Gravity, The Martian and Interstellar, it also thinks to explore humanity and how it evolves and adapts to facing something new – especially when it’s the unknown. If Ad Astra goes beyond its contemporaries in this exploration, however, it does show how satisfying development can end up bogged down by this quest.
The cast of Ad Astra had generated a fair amount of buzz, and it does seem a surprise that Tommy Lee Jones has never been cast as Brad Pitt’s father before. They’re a convincing father-son duo, not only physically, and in what their Hollywood casting projects on to them, but also in the laconic way they speak.
Roy McBride (Pitt), who has been inspired to travel in the footsteps of his space hero father, Clifford (Jones), is briefed on his father’s pioneering mission, the Lima Project, which could be the key to ending the deadly solar flares impacting earth. He’s forced to try and process the emotions of someone who feels both inspired and abandoned by a father whose heroism and dedication is being questioned by the very organisation who asked it of him. And this is all as a character whose pulse famously never tops 80 BPM.
Luckily, in a film set up to be Brad Pitt’s, the actor delivers. Pitt reminds you how much can be conveyed on screen by doing very little, if you know how to nail screen acting. From his first few pulse-pounding moments he’s in command. Yes, a calm, repressed character might not make for the showiest of performances but it’s an understated and solid one nonetheless. Those opening moments also display the film’s stunning visuals and impressive design, although possibly at the expense of the comfort of anyone watching with a fear of heights or open spaces…
The excellent cast performs their (generally) nuanced parts well, particularly Ruth Negga, who improves everything she’s in (see her Oscar-nominated turn in Loving). The glaring exception to this rule is the paper-thin part Liv Tyler is lumped with, as Roy’s wife Eve. It’s oddly similar to the supportive partner role she played in Armageddon – but with fewer lines.
One of the most intriguing parts of Ad Astra is how it considers the effects of manipulating people and their emotions, and the related danger. Who can you trust? Has Clifford – long believed dead – in fact gone rogue, so far away at the outer reaches of our solar system? Can Clifford’s friend, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), with whom he quarrelled, and who is now escorting Roy on his mission, be trusted? Does SpaceCom have ulterior motives? What about those who have spent the majority of their lives in outer space, feeling estranged from the earth, such as Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga)? Ad Astra does well by playing its cards close to its chest.
Ad Astra also delves into the quite realistic possibilities of near-future space travel, although it does inch a little closer to Interstellar than The Martian by the end. It touches on pertinent points, including obsessions over extra-terrestrial life, the decision to look to create a new Earth over trying to preserve this one, the separation of human from earth, as well as the divvying-up of territory in space and how human nature will always see someone ready to exploit it. Ultimately, the film is more concerned with the human condition over the technical procedures of space travel, which undoubtedly makes it better. It also allows for a savvy partnership with Virgin, which publicly announced its ambition to be the first commercial operator to fly to the moon. One way human nature is sure to look to gain from progress is by charging $125 for a comfort pack on board a flight.
The major issue Ad Astra fails to tackle is its own denouement. The majority of the film does seem to suggest that it’s more about the journey than the destination, particularly with the amount of time that elapses before Roy reaches his father’s presumed location. In fairness, there’s certainly enough material to comfortably fill the film’s running time without lagging (although I question the, er, ‘explosive’ nature of the mayday call answered by the SpaceCom crew about halfway through), but the climax seems rushed and lacking in weight and depth. It’s a little empty after everything you’ve pondered in the lead-up. Also, plausible science seems to fly out the window, with a hefty amount of floating in space, surfing through rocks and ignoring just how long it might take someone to traverse the solar system – even with the convenience of future technology.
But Ad Astra’s most unforgivable misstep, right from the start, is its cringey, pompous voiceover from Pitt, which adds nothing other than an unfortunate similarity to the ‘inevitable’ advert in which he spouted drivel for Chanel No.5 back in 2012. What he says here makes about as much sense, and is totally superfluous. It’s also strange, in a film that otherwise treats its audience as intelligent beings. Was there a wobble in confidence in the screenplay’s clarity during post-production, and someone shoe-horned it in there?
Ad Astra is a good film, with some wonderful parts in its cast, performances, visuals and 80% of its story. It’s worth watching, especially if you enjoy a space film, but it just doesn’t quite add up to a perfect cinematic equation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★