Reviewer Michael Craig takes apart the new sci-fi hit Ad Astra.
With yet another film utilising space as a backdrop, James Gray’s Ad Astra - starring Brad Pitt - falls far short of some of the exceptional sci-fi films we’ve seen in recent years. It is a film that unfortunately pales in comparison to recent similar productions such as Interstellar, Gravity, or even the cult classic that was Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Visually stunning, Ad Astra presents us with the sheer beauty of space and its presence on the big screen is mesmerising. This is brought to life by the soundtrack of Max Richter, a worthy successor to the minimalist style pioneered by the likes of Philip Glass and Steven Reich. It may well also be one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances, who plays astronaut Roy McBride, a character carrying a lot of repressed suffering and pain toward his father that is brought to the forefront as the film progresses. What is most impressive about the performance by Pitt is the understated way in which he shines. It is subtle facial expressions - more than any lines he delivers - that excel. Frankly, the film suffers from not making enough use of its other big names in Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland, who I think could have been utilised more without a drastic alteration of the plot. The character played by Sutherland was wholly unnecessary and was, frankly, a huge waste of his talents. The real issue for Ad Astra is that it makes great use of the stellar performance by Pitt and its mastery of sound and cinematography to the expense of all else, most notably an engaging plot and interesting dialogue.
Set in the near future (but late enough for them to have opened an Applebee’s on the moon - yes, seriously), power surges are occurring across the solar system, causing havoc and destruction on Earth. Such surges are found to be coming from the Lima Project, near Neptune, a mission that began nearly three decades prior - in an attempt to find extraterrestrial life - but which contact had been lost for 16 years. The commander of the Lima Project was McBride’s father (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Up to this point the film had a lot going for it, but it then became, in all honesty, dull. The following 90 minutes or so trudges along at a pace just slightly faster than glacial and follows Pitt as he embarks on a mission to destroy the Lima Project whilst preparing to come face to face with his father, all the while he monologues his thoughts to the audience. The overwhelming focus on the meeting of father and son becomes particularly grating the more the film goes on. We get it, it sucks that your father left you a long time ago to go to space, but my sympathy quickly vanished by Roy banging on about it every few minutes.
The film could have redeemed itself towards the end, with a big payoff as McBride and his father meet for the first time in 27 years. But, alas, even that was built up to be something that promised so much but failed to deliver any real emotional impact on the audience. There are too many scenes in Ad Astra that either just go unexplained or are just not required. What was the point of the lunar pirates? Or the murderous space monkeys? Why did we not get a better ending when it becomes clear, as the film progresses, what his father had done? Why did Pitt face no consequences for actions that he causes during the flight to Neptune?
Ad Astra is - both at its core and on its surface - a film about a son with a troubled relationship with his dad. The space environment is just the background, but the film relies far too strongly on the background in order to make it a good film. A film that needs to be carried by something other than its main plot (I’m looking at you Avatar!) always enters into the realms of being gimmicky. This, I’m afraid, is the fundamental issue with Ad Astra.
Brad Pitt and the talented technicians of the cast still do well. In the aptly-astronomical metric for typically rating movies, Ad Astra deserves three out of five stars.