Ad Astra Takes Lift Off in Theatres, but Does it Land?
Directed by: James Gray Starring: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland Runtime: 122 mins
Fresh off of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt is leaping back into theatres dressed in a spacesuit and with a mellower demeanour than his previous role involved. Like Tarantino, director James Gray boasts a lean filmography, with only a handful of feature films to his name before Ad Astra.
Pitt plays Major Roy McBride. As we are strongly and repeatedly reminded at the outset, he’s the son of renowned astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford was a pioneering figure that drove the “Lima Project” 26 years before current events, in an amibitious and dangerous attempt to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the solar system. 10 years on from taking lift off, the Lima Project lost contact with “Space Command” while orbiting Neptune and essentially disappeared. In light of powerful but seemingly inexplicable power surges that rock the solar system, the United States Armed Forces branch in space bring in the accomplished and composed Roy and inform him that the Lima Project may be linked with the current situation. They outline that under the command of his father, the project’s operations carry existential threats that could yield devastating results for the solar system. Under the veiled supervision of Clifford’s former associate Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Roy is sent on a commercial lunar flight. From the moon, he needs to go to Mars and transmit a message essentially to figure out what on earth (and elsewhere in the solar system) is happening.
One of the most striking features of Ad Astra is the self assurance with which it contextualises itself. The story is set in the future, and it’s not entirely obvious exactly when. However, there’s a subtle and appealling introduction here. We know that commercial flights to the moon are now a thing, and that humans are getting to grips with solar system exploration with more ease. That allows for a visually appealing but also realistic portrayal of humankind in outer space. Things seem quite commercialised, and in many ways new planets are just another space where the drudgery of labour now takes place. The manner in which the film paints the expansion of everyday human activity to new colonised planets has bleak and at times apocalyptic undertones, not unlike Apocalypse Now and even Mad Max. However normalised space travel may seem in the opening stages of the film, things appear to be spiralling out of control. Literally. An opening set piece introduces audiences to the worrying abnormalities in one of the most impressive space scenes in quite a while. In a film that demands to be seen in theatres, it’s almost worth going along for this scene alone.
As the modest 2 hour running time goes on, more awe inspiring scenes unfold that shape Roy’s quest to find his father. With a plot set outside the bounds of earth, it’s not exactly the biggest challenge to wow audiences with cool and aesthetic effects. The concept of heading out into the unknown with our mere human feelers is fascinating in itself. It’s an expansion of the human experience that delves beyond earth and perhaps explains part of the success behind franchises like Star Wars. However doable it might be, director James Gray and his team have clearly put in the work here. This effort is to be expected. When announcing Ad Astra, Gray set his ambitions high by saying he wanted “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie. While I can’t speak to specifics with regard to scientific accuracy, I can say as an audience member that it’s an incredible and immersive depiction of life (or lack thereof in some places) beyond earth. This is accompanied by a subtle but evocative soundtrack, adding a layer of sensual beauty to each scene.
An intermittent narration by Roy himself helps to compensate from an overall tight lipped demeanour from our main character. It also helps to craft the narrative, because so much of the context here is past relationships.
This is my main gripe with Ad Astra. In spite of breathtaking imagery, this seems to be a film that wants to be taken as a story that’s deeply character driven. These things are often open to interpretation, but the father – son dynamic that shapes the film’s story just falls flat on a number of occasions. There’s a coldness and emotional impotence that affects how major scenes play out. Other relationships that are supposed to be formative to Pitt’s character are just not fleshed out enough. This includes his relationship with estranged wife Eve, played by an underused Liv Tyler. It’s referenced a few times that there was strain in their relationship and a lot of it had to do with Roy’s life as an astronaut. This could have allowed for poignant insights that probe what exactly it is that drives so much of the anxiety and despair that undoubetdly must come with that kind of prolonged separation. This is a disappointing omission, and it may be unfair to say that the director is focusing more on special effects in favour of substance. Special effects are important in these types of films, and they’re executed with superb precision here. The problem is though, much of this type of visual awe has been done already. Of course we can think back to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also with Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity in 2013. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character brought much more to the table in terms of emotional reasonance. Another inevitable comparison is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014. Interstellar put the work in when aiming for authenticity in its portrayal of space, but boldly matched it with a deeply character driven and at times tearjerker plot. Ad Astra falls short in getting the balance right, and its disappointing in light of the talent on screen including Ireland’s own Ruth Negga.
At times it seems that Gray is aiming for a frosty bleakness à la Stanley Kubrick, but the plot is so entangled in what is obviously meant to be a personal story that the tone is uncertain. While at this point it might seem like a bit of a cliché made out of low hanging fruit, this is another film that dazzles with effects as a cinematic experience, but ultimately falls short as its own story. The strained father/son drama has been done time and time again, and is typical of patriarchal themes that have dominated so many scripts in the past. It needed to do something inventive here in order to stand out, and what we get just feels underwhelming. Notwithstanding the numerous highly impressive visual scenes, the characters and the issues that plague them are underdeveloped in a way that leaves a cold chill not dissimilar from the icy surroundings of the cosmos that Roy finds himself in. It immerses you in everything, apart from the personal relationships that should be a major part of what make Ad Astra land.(3.5 / 5)