Ad Astra

Posted: October 11, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by James Gray. Starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

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In the near future the solar system is hit by a succession of power surges that threaten to wipe out humanity. After almost being killed by one such surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) is informed by space command that the surges may have originated from Neptune, where a mission known as the Lima Project disappeared 16 years before. The commander of the Lima project was Roy’s father H. Clifford McBride (Jones).

Roy is tasked with going to Mars to send a signal to Neptune, in the hopes that his father is still alive. His journey begins on the Moon, where he comes under attack from brigands on the lunar surface, and as he travellers on to Mars he will encounter other dangers.

Is his father still alive though, and if he is can Roy reach him in time to stop the Lima Project destroying all life in the solar system?

When the trailers came out for Ad Astra I got excited, a cerebral science fiction film that promised action as well, throw in fantastic cinematography and Brad Pitt and surely it was going to be a cracker.

What’s amazing about Ad Astra is how all those things combine to make a film that’s so inert, committing the cardinal sin of being boring, to the point that even the action scenes are dull. The fact they make little narrative sense just adds annoyance to the tedium.

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On the face of it this is Apocalypse Now in space, only instead of heading upriver to find colonel Kurtz, Roy is heading to the outermost reaches of the solar system to find his father who may or may not have gone insane. The trouble is that with any kind of quest or road movie, it’s a fine line between a journey that feels organic and one that feels like a series of lines drawn between random spots on the map, and too often it feels like the plot of driving the characters rather than the characters driving the plot.

It doesn’t help that many of the set pieces don’t make any sense. The moon buggy gun battle for example. Why does Pitt even have to take a moon buggy anyway rather than taking a shuttle to the other side of the moon? Don’t even get me started on how come the Moon seems to have Earth normal gravity. I can accept some artistic license once we reach Mars given its gravity is almost 40% of Earth, on the Moon gravity is just a little over 15%.

Once he heads into space we then have a random distress call that diverts his ship to a space station where we get another set piece, again it’s random and seems to serve no purposes other than to, presumably, pep up a script it was felt wasn’t exciting enough. Each set piece has the feel of something inserted because it was felt something had to happen, like those books that swear they can teach you to write a script (remember your inciting incident needs to happen on page 25 or you fail!)

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As the insular Roy, Pitt is very good, or at least he would be if writer/director Gray allowed him to be. Pitt’s performance is spot on, but clearly Gray didn’t have faith in his star, because why else would almost every scene of Pitt clearly struggling with his inner demons be accompanied by a voiceover where Roy explains what’s going through his head. The comparisons with First Man are startling, that too featured a closed off, insular astronaut, but whereas Damien Chazelle let Gosling’s acting do the talking, Gray feels the need to tell rather than show.

When he shows up Jones is good, he just doesn’t get nearly enough to do, and the ending is something of a damp squib, still he fares better than Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga who are all completely wasted in wafer thin roles.

The most annoying thing is that there’s the kernel of a great idea here about the existential horror of being alone in the universe, it’s just handled so poorly. I wonder if one day we might get a Blade Runner style redux; strip out the voice over, lose fifteen or twenty minutes and there might be an interesting film here, but as it stands for me this failed on pretty much every level (though it looks good). My advice, watch First Man instead.

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