I took some time to catch Ad Astra the latest Brad Pitt film while in Northern Greece at an open air outdoor cinema for some added novelty.
Hard Sci Fi movies since 2001: A space Odyssey onwards try to find answers to lofty questions. They try to ground themselves in science and ask questions pointed inwards about Mankind more than escapist space opera like Star Wars or Star Trek.
The problem is for every Interstellar we get a High Life, for every The Martian we get a Mission to Mars and in between we get a Sunshine.
Ad Astra is no different, it reaches for the stars but where does it land?
Brad Pitt plays the stoic Roy McBride. An unshakable second generation career astronaut very much living in his pioneer fathers shadow. McBride is so unflappable in the face of danger we are told his heart rate never goes above 80. Pitt’s performance has been praised for being so nuanced and subtle. Which does come through but for the most part I found his character flat and lacking enough emotion to bring the viewer along for the ride.
Tommy Lee Jones is H Clifford McBride. Roy’s father that has been absent for the sake of his career for most of his life. We aren’t really given much time with his character than an almost haunting presence through video logs and messages. It would have been nice to actually get more of his characters motivations within the context of the movie as its left all very mad scientist.
Liv Tyler is Roy’s estranged wife Eve who is barely in the movie. A lot of the film centers on how Roy has pushed her aside for his work much like his father did with him and his mother. Again it would have been nice to get a bit more context of their relationship.
Donald Sutherland as Col Pruitt is a friend of Roy’s father and is his minder for the beginning of the mission. It would have been good to see Donald and Tommy Lee Jones riff off each other like a Space Cowboys reunion. Missed opportunity for continuing the Space Cowboys cinematic universe.
Sometime in the future a mysterious power surge coming from Neptune is causing havoc on Earth, The Moon and Mars by damaging electrical equipment vital for mankind’s expansion into the solar system. Roy’s father who disappeared decades before is thought to be the one at the heart of the mystery surges and Roy is sent on a mission to make contact with his long lost father. The mission however doesn’t all go to plan and the hazards of space and the human mind are a constant threat.
There are parallels in the story to Greek Epic the (non-Space) Odyssey with Odyesseus vanishing for 20 years on his quest while his son Telemachus wonders if his father is ever coming home.
There is also symbolism with Roy jettisoning vehicles, people and his wife like they are stages on a rocket to take him closer to his objective.
As mentioned there are some movies that get this genre right and there are others that try but just come off as pretentious. Ad Astra falls into the latter. It’s pacing and Pitt’s morose delivery just suck the excitement of space travel and exploration right out the airlock.
It’s cinematic best practice to “Show don’t Tell” as soon as Brad Pitt’s narration kicked in I groaned a little. This is commonly used when a director (or more commonly a movie studio) thinks an audience is too dumb to get something unless it’s explicitly told to them.
For example I can understand that there being a neon cowboy sign on the moon and other brands plastered everywhere like its’s an airport duty free it’s making a statement about there being no escaping mankind’s rampant consumerism. Only for the narration to spell it out right after.
After hearing about the reshoots this movie had I think this had a bit of the BladeRunner forced narration injected into it.
Ad Astra has also been marketed as an epic space adventure movie, showing off the action sequences heavily when in some ways the film is trying to be a lot more indie than that. It felt more like the movie Moon, happy to explore it’s themes on it’s own terms.
Although the movie is 2hrs long it feels crushed under the weight of it’s own importance and drags like you stepped foot on one of the time sucking planets of Interstellar.
The Good Stuff
Ad Astra looks amazing, which should be no surprise with Weta having provided some special effects sequences for the film. The visuals have a strong sense of depth and scope fitting for the vastness of space.
There is also a bit of almost cosmic horror at points which really unnerves. This also could have been teased out a bit more. Ok Ad Astra was never going to be Event Horizon but there is a lot of creepiness of people losing their shit in space, gazing into the abyss while it gazes into them.
The action sequences of which there is a sprinkling through the movie are engaging but they are deliberately not a focus and are more of a means to an end. I would have liked to have seen them expanded on a bit more, not going full Michael Bay Armageddon but it would have livened things up a bit.
The Moon Rover sequence is pretty badass as you can see here in this heavily re-edited version.
This film is being sold as something it isn’t as far as the trailers go. Ad Astra is a lot more cerebral and introspective which is fine but it seems the studio freaked out and tried to make it into a more action / adventure wide appeal tentpole movie than it perhaps should be.
Ad Astra is still light-years better than the pretentious embarrassment of an indie hard Sci Fi film High Life, which was actively ugly, joyless and meandering.
I’m hardly ADHD when it comes to enjoying a film so when I’m hoping it will just hurry the fuck along it’s saying something. If Pitt or the editing were a little more engaging this would not have been a problem.
I did enjoy the majority of this film although it seems a bit of a missed opportunity. I have similar feelings about Sunshine, which although I have problems with it’s third act swing to a slasher movie when it could have just as happily continued on as a space disaster movie with a more consistent tone. It is still a movie I come back to and re-watch and enjoy despite its flaws which for me, I feel Ad Astra will be the same.
You’ll like it if you enjoy:
Hard Sci Fi
2001, Interstellar, The Martian, Sunshine, Solaris, Gravity
Introspective indie films
Skip it if you:
Get bored easily
Prefer more lasers in your Sci Fi
Want a main character you can relate to
In cinemas now
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