I watched Ad Astra a few weeks ago but I put off writing my review. I decided that I needed a bit of time to really get to grips with my feelings about it. I mean I’m still getting over the fact that this film appears to have been named after my go-to Pizza Express order minus the chicken. And the fact that Brad Pitt, yes Meeting Joe Black Brad Pitt, was making huge waves with his two performances this year. It’s not that I think Pitt is a bad actor but he’s spent a lot of years sorting of staying under the radar. There have been a few films that have grabbed people’s attention but, for the most part, he hasn’t exactly been doing award-worthy things of late. But then Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood showed us that Brad was here to play. His role in Tarantino’s Hollywood fairy story was magnificent enough to stand-up to the powerhouse that is Leonardo DiCaprio. So, when everyone started claiming Ad Astra offered one of his best-ever performances, I wasn’t as full of disbelief as I once would have been.
As humanity continues to fuck up the planet beyond repair, a lot of attention is being placed on space lately. Science-fiction films have certainly become more sophisticated in recent years. I admit that I’ve missed a lot of the big ones. I’ve always been put off by the intimidating run-time of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and I just never bothered with Arrival. I’m sure that I’m missing out on great things but there are plenty of films that I’ve been more excited about. But I decided that Ad Astra was going to be an exception to my apparent no-space rule. For one thing, it stars Donald Sutherland who, after a dream that I had years ago, always feels like he’s my father-in-law. So, I kind of had to show some support.
Ad Astra has been often been described as Apocalypse Now in space. Instead of heading into the jungle, Bradd Pitt’s Major Roy McBride must journey to deep space for his mission. With mysterious power surges threating life on Earth, Roy is brought in to find a solution. It has been discovered that the surges can be traced back to a long lost mission called the Lima Project. A mission that set out to find intelligent life in the universe and the same one that Roy’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was a part of. Roy is tasked with sending a message to his father to get him to come home so he sets off on a journey to face his past. Cut to a lot of introspective space stuff. Oh and that moment with the monkey that was in the trailer.
Science fiction has certainly changed as a genre recently. With the release of Gravity, depictions of space have become more realistic. There can be no doubt that Ad Astra is a visually stunning film. The cinematography and the visual effects all work together to create something that looks and feels very real. And that is a reality that, for the most part, Ad Astra attempts to keep up. The film is set in the near future and it all feels fairly familiar. Space travel has been commercialised and is run like every high-priced airline. There are some fun but plausible elements of world-building here. We see the tourist-trap that the Moon has become and the facility on Mars. It all feels quite restrained by traditional sci-fi standards.
Something that the film as a whole follows. It’s kind of stately and melancholic. The film is punctuated by McBride’s narration, which gives the film an easy way to delve into the deeper elements of the film. Pitt gives a decent performance as Roy, a man who is faced with the very real possibility that the father he thought was dead could be alive. In his job, he remains calm and collected no matter what the mission throws at him. Yes, as things get more personal he begins to unravel. We feel his yearning for family. The problem is, the film doesn’t have enough faith in its lead. So it punctuates everything with a voiceover. It’s unnecessary and often just gives the whole film a kind of pathetic vibe. So much for show don’t tell, eh.
And it’s not just the narration. For a film that is so desperate to remain insular and meditative, there are a lot of really silly moments. The man-eating monkey feels like it’s come from a separate film and there are plenty of other weirdly out-of-place moments. I mean, Apocalypse Now didn’t throw in space pirates to get things moving, did it? And let’s all spare a thought for Liv Tyler. Her role is reduced to some romantically lit flashbacks that have the feel of a new Chanel advert rather than a major Hollywood film. For all of its sophistication, Ad Astra contains a whole lot of nonsense.
But that’s not to say that it isn’t worthy of all the praise it’s been given. It’s a deep story that touches upon something completely human. It’s hardly groundbreaking in its insights but it at least attempts to bring science-fiction to a greater emotional level than we’re necessarily used to. It might never reach the great heights of the films is it being compared to but it is certainly worth a watch. There are some fine moments of science-fiction and emotional drama. Could it be tighter? Yeah. There are moments towards the end when the pace drops and things start lagging. But it’s an accomplished bit of filmmaking.