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Ad Astra Review

September 20, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Ad Astra - Brad Pitt
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Ad Astra Review  

Directed By: James Gray
Written By: James Gray and Ethan Gross
Runtime: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language

Brad Pitt – Roy McBride
Tommy Lee Jones – Clifford McBride
Donald Sutherland – Colonel Pruitt
Ruth Negga – Helen Lantos
Liv Tyler – Eve McBride
Loren Dean – Donald Stanford
John Finn – Stroud
John Ortiz – General Rivas

Brad Pitt collaborates with director James Gray for the interesting, yet somewhat underwhelming, sci-fi picture Ad Astra. As a sci-fi film, it’s a mishmash of familiar tropes and ideas, but it does come together for an interesting and compelling experience.

Set in a time period that could be anywhere from the mid-to-late 21st century to possibly the early 22nd century, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as SpaceCom astronaut Roy McBride. While Roy is incredibly calm under extreme pressure, the dangers of his work have estranged him from his wife Eve (Tyler). After a cosmic catastrophe hits the orbital elevator/antenna on the base where Roy is stationed, Roy uses quick thinking and sharp reflexes to shut down the power and escape certain death.

Following a top-secret meeting with the SpaceCom brass, Roy learns the cosmic catastrophe resulted from a volatile chain reaction originating from the deep-space station that Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Jones), was assigned to lead decades earlier. The mission was tasked with journeying to Neptune to potentially discover signs of intelligent life outside planet Earth. However, contact with Cliff McBride was lost, and he was presumed dead. Unfortunately, the anti-matter reactor aboard the deep-space vessel is sending out violent shockwaves, and it threatens to end all life on Earth. Roy’s new mission is to travel to Mars in order to make contact with his long-lost father.

James Gray is an underrated filmmaker, and his last movie was the underrated The Lost City of Z, which is one of the reasons I’m convinced Robert Pattinson is a solid choice to portray the new Batman. Both films share quite a few comparable themes. Each film portrays emotionally complex father-and-son relationship, deep exploration into the unknown and venturing to discover the undiscoverable. Gray presents an introspective examination of space travel.

Essentially, Ad Astra can be boils down to Heart of Darkness in space. From a visual standpoint, its look is reminiscent of other cosmic romps, such as Interstellar and Gravity. So, throw in a bit of that, some classic Arthur C. Clarke, Friedrich Nietzsche, some 1980s animated Starcom, and of course 2001, and that’s roughly Ad Astra. Incidentally, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ad Astra share the same cinematographer in Hoyte Van Hoytema, which offers a partial explanation. Gray and Van Hoytema create a film that looks visually interesting, which is, at times, immersive.

The vision of the future presented by Gray is sometimes confusing. An organization such as SpaceCom, which looks like a narrative stand-in for the Space Force, makes sense. However, while it seems the future has mastered the creation of laser blaster weapons for zero-g space battles, the spacecrafts, suits and propulsion systems used for interstellar travel still look rather archaic. Specifically, the space suits and vehicles appear comparable to what’s available today, while the weaponry looks much more advanced. Perhaps that is a commentary on bleeding edge technology being exploited for its uses in combat and war over exploration or space travel, but in terms of presenting a palpable, futuristic setting, the ideas are a bit off the mark.

James Gray and Ethan Gross’ script loses its footing in the many narrative setups, red herrings and misdirections that don’t really go anywhere. The story has a few tangents, which while interesting, don’t really add much to the plot. They are never revisited or addressed later on, so they come off superfluous. There’s a particularly creepy, horror movie-like sequence where Roy and another astronaut investigate a distress signal on a seemingly empty space station. The setup for this particular sequence is like something out of an Alien movie, but the payoff is mostly an afterthought.

For another example, it is quite tragic that petty wars and conflicts have spread to the moon. When Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon, it was in the name of peace for all mankind. Yet in this future, there are space pirates and warring territories on the lunar surface. At this point, between SpaceCom and the space pirates, Ad Astra almost starts to resemble the 1980s animated series Starcom: The U.S. Space Force. The drawback is that premise is almost as interesting as the Heart of Darkness in space premise that the script ultimately pursues. Unfortunately, these elements are discarded relatively quickly and really only serve to pad out the plot.

The subplot involving Roy’s wife is rather dull and underdeveloped. It’s disappointing since Gray did a much better job exploring the relationship of explorer Percy Fawcett and his wife Nina in The Lost City of Z; and Sienna Miller was featured in a fairly prominent role in that film. It’s not even an issue of making the most of Liv Tyler’s screentime. Her presence is barely felt — a waste of Tyler’s casting and talents.

Gray offers some interesting visual touches throughout the film. There is a lot of abstract, surrealist imagery that increases as Roy McBride travels deeper into the solar system. It provides a nice externalization of the mental strain such isolation in space can cause to a person’s mental psyche. At times, there are even some David Lynch-eseque tricks, with characters materializing out of nothingness.

Ad Astra features an interesting juxtaposition for space travel. On Earth and the moon, the idea of space travel looks mundane and commercialized. There’s a lunar colony complete with an Applebee’s and a Yoshinoya, but unfortunately, no In-n-Out burger. What once was wondrous is now just another extension of mankind’s penchant for commercial entertainment and exploitation. What would Applebee’s on the moon even taste like? As Roy gets further away from Earth, the space travel does become more eerie and dangerous.

Brad Pitt gives a strong, compelling, yet somewhat verbose, performance. Pitt’s Roy is a man trying to get answers. He has isolated himself from those closest to him, and the film is mainly built around his thoughts and narration. The film showcases the struggle of looking into the abyss and explores whether Roy’s father faced that same struggle and succumbed to it. In those areas, Ad Astra finds its strength. In terms of the narrative voice-over for Pitt’s Roy McBride, less probably would have been more.

Tommy Lee Jones puts in a solid, yet somewhat derivative, performance as Clifford McBride. It’s really not a huge departure from his usual type but gets the job done, especially since Jones is basically an interstellar version of Colonel Kurtz.

Overall, Ad Astra is a decent sci-fi movie that presents some interesting concepts and ideas. There is some enjoyable work here. For those who enjoy deep and introspective sci-fi, this is worth a look. Just don’t expect an experience on par with the sources that inspired it.

7.0
The final score: review Good
The 411
For the most part, Ad Astra is pretty solid. The film contains some strong visuals and direction by James Gray. Brad Pitt provides a strong leading performance. Some ideas get introduced and thrown out later. Other ideas are a bit underdeveloped. But it is an interesting look at futuristic space travel and exploration. The future James Gray depicts is in no way idyllic, yet it is not so bleak. At this point, the Earth has not blown up, nor has it been destroyed from abuse. As the opening crawl states, it's a world of great hope but also great conflict. That serves to make the future shown in Ad Astra comparable to the problems the Earth faces today.
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