Ad Astra was directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z) from a script by himself and co-writer Ethan Gross, and stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, an astronaut with unparalleled composure even in the face of unspeakably dire odds. He is always alert, always ready, and always prepared to do what is necessary to complete his mission. It is this assumed tranquility that causes the central space agency at the heart of the film to reach out to Roy after a number of strange power surges throughout the universe wreak havoc on a space antenna that comes up from the Earth, as well as the Earth itself. Plane crashes, fires, and other such disasters become much more frequent due to these surges, and the only hope the agency has of stopping them is Roy, whose father commanded the mission (known as the “Lima” project) the agency suspects was the catalyst for these events. Roy must journey through the vast reaches of space, find his father (if he’s even still alive), discern the cause of the surges, and prevent them from ever happening again; otherwise, all known life in the universe could perish, and the answers would be lost to the stars. The film also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and Liv Tyler.
When the first trailer dropped for Ad Astra back in June, it immediately went on to my must-watch list for 2019. A movie about exploring deep space and solving a mystery where Brad Pitt is the lead astronaut and it has that cast? I was sold almost immediately, especially because that trailer is one of the most exceptionally well put together trailers of the entire year thus far; the visuals were gorgeous, the soundtrack was epic, and it established the whole story without giving away almost any of its inherent mystery. This was something I not only wanted to see, but had to see, on the largest screen possible. Then the second trailer dropped sometime around mid-July, and while I wasn’t quite as impressed with it as that first one, I appreciated that it seemed to show a more meditative look at the story, emphasizing the connection between Roy and his father (Tommy Lee Jones). It didn’t exactly the grab-you-and-go pull of the first trailer, but I figured that was more the fault of the marketing team simply having nothing else to show that wouldn’t give away the most important parts of the story, those central to its intrigue. Perhaps I should have been more concerned by the sudden tone shift, because I will tell you this right now: Ad Astra’s similarities to its first trailer begin and end with the visuals, and while that’s not a bad thing (specifically from a visual standpoint), I couldn’t help but leave the theater a little bit disappointed with what I saw.
Ad Astra is a strange beast of a movie; I can’t recall the last time I found a film to be lacking what it so desperately needed to be great, only for that movie to still be anywhere from decent to good anyway, even with those missing elements. The only possible way I could imagine a film like this failing at its ultimate mission (with its kind of ambition, drive, and philosophical underpinnings), is if at first they had a great movie, and then things started going wrong in post-production that meant significant elements of the film had to change in order to accommodate new circumstances, because believe me, Ad Astra is about as ambitious as they come in terms of space movies from the 21st century. The reach one has to have in order to even attempt something like this, a space adventure that all at once attempts to breathe notes of 2001, Gravity, and Interstellar into its own atmosphere, has got to be massive, and I commend director James Gray for actually putting it out there, regardless of the notion that it didn’t really work the whole way for me. Gray is very clearly an accomplished director who believes in his work, and that’s evident in most (if not all) frames of this movie, which by the way, look stunning.
I think we might be able to go ahead and lock it in now that Ad Astra gets a visual effects nomination, because the one thing every critic (including myself) seems to agree on regarding this film is that it’s one of the most stunning space movies ever made. There are, of course, the typical shots of the Earth, as well as a few asteroid belts, the moon, the design of the ships, etc, but the real prize comes in the film’s latter half when most of the action takes place farther out than most space dramas go, and we actually get to see the cold, vast loneliness of space. Particular sequences near the planet Neptune hold a special place among “most stunning movie space images ever,” especially with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also shot Dunkirk) behind the camera.
Brad Pitt’s performance is also quite good (even though the role did kind of feel pretty similar to Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong in First Man), and while I don’t think they gave him a whole lot to do in this movie aside from narrate how he’s feeling to the audience, the way his face can express such a pin-point precise microcosm of emotions and thoughts running through his head even though he’s not saying anything, and nothing is being said to him, is astounding. This guy really is one of our best and brightest movie stars, and I sure hope he sticks around for a long time, cause even with sub-par material, Pitt delivers every single time, and that would be too hard to miss.
Now, however, I have to address my problems with the film as a whole, and easily the most noticeable thing the film lacks is a clear sense of what it wants to be. And that lack of identity, of purpose, is what causes Ad Astra to travel at a pace so slow that Neptune seems less far away than the film’s end (even though it’s barely over two hours long). Nowhere is this more apparent than the second act, which busts out a pretty exciting moon buggy action sequence to keep people interested, but fails to justify the sequence’ existence or necessity in a film where not having it changes absolutely nothing of the plot moving forward. The film is an extremely slow burn, much more of a drama than genuine sci-fi, and while that’s not a bad thing (in fact, some of the greatest films ever made have been slow burns), because it was marketed differently, it’s going to be jarring to audiences eager to get to the bomb drops and buggy chases. It also tries way too hard to be too many iconic space movies at once, so much so that it forgets to be itself, which is when it works best.
Yes, there are notes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and company (and to be fair to it, that does seem to be the one Ad Astra is attempting to emulate the most, especially in its third act), but it doesn’t really stick to or discard any of those, choosing instead to emphasize some of those notes in the right places, and some in the wrong ones. It’s a really confounding cocktail of homage and originality, never really committing to either, but constantly trying to make you think it might if you just wait a little longer. That third act is easily the best part of the movie, but it feels tonally at odds with the rest of the film, and in its quest to ask high-minded questions and search the stars for truths we don’t know of yet, it gets a bit lost in its own mind, and that mind doesn’t seem to be moving forward in its thoughts very much.
Much of this can actually be traced back to a lack of development for any character who’s not Roy. Even his father is only briefly discussed by space agency personnel and himself, and given the essential nature of that intimate connection Roy and his father would have, the film seems to want to keep us at a distance from both Roy’s father as a character, and the relationship between them. In fact, nothing in this movie (save for brief flashes that really don’t mean anything and could have been removed from the film entirely) indicates that Roy would have cared enough about his father or forged enough of a bond with him to make some of the decisions he does throughout the course of the film. Oh, and in case you thought any of the other cast members like Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, or Liv Tyler got any development in his place, Sutherland is the one with the most screen-time – about 10 total minutes (Tyler gets the short end of the stick by seemingly having been cut from most of the film apart from two videos and two glances).
I don’t think Ad Astra is a terrible film by any means, but there are some films that come out that are disappointing because they’re just not very good, and there are some films that suffer this fate because they fail to meet their full potential (i.e. they’re just “decent”/“good” when they could have been astounding). Ad Astra belongs in that latter camp; it retains its status as a good movie when considered as a whole, but the bevvy of pacing issues, lack of interesting characters, and tonal inconsistencies between all three acts make it somewhat of a chore to sit through. While it’s certainly commendable that Gray, Pitt, and company reached for the stars, it’s unfortunate that a new space masterpiece was just a bit too far beyond their grasp.
I’m giving “Ad Astra” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.