It is rare for me to watch the same movie twice in theaters and even more so to do it within 24 hours. In fact, I have not done this ever, until today, but this film demanded it. I did not know much about the story before the first viewing. I knew that it was a space opera, so I was really hoping for it to be good, as this is probably my utmost favorite genre and there aren’t that many entries in it, at least not in the last two decades. Brad Pitt was the lead actor, so I knew that the acting will be good, and the buzz from the critics seemed favorable enough, so I was hoping for this movie to become the next best thing ever, at least in my eyes. Afterwards, knowing what the movie was about, I went back to see it again, to find out if there is anything that I might have missed the first time around, some hidden subtleties, details, which would confer extra meaning or depth to the movie. But, alas, Ad Astra is not what I hope it would be. It is probably the most realistic depiction of space travel though, as it feels longer than a rainy Monday and is boring as hell…
The story goes as follows: Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, an astronaut extraordinaire. He is so dedicated, so focused on his duties, that all other aspects of his life are totally ignored. As it happens, one day he is working on this huge tower, some sort of telescope or what, that reaches from the ground all the way to the edge of space. They are searching for alien civilizations, which seems to be everybody’s past time hobby those days. Regardless, Roy is on working outside on the tower, at the edge of space when suddenly the tower gets hit by a surge of energy which wrecks the place. Turns out, the surge comes from Neptune, where Roy’s father went a long time ago to search for, you guessed it, alien civilizations. Apparently, he might have something to do with the surge. As such, Roy must travel to Mars, so that he can get in touch with his father in order to find out where exactly is he and then to be able to do something about what happening, because the surges just keep on coming and they are frying all electronics and possible they can kill all life on Earth. Needless to say, this would be bad. To prevent it, Roy ventures after his father, to the edge of space…
So, let us get trough the positives first. The movie is just beautiful to look at. Wide, crystal clear shots when it comes to scenery and action. Great, detailed close ups when it comes to dialogue. And there is an interesting play with lighting and colors trough the movie. But this is no surprise as the cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, one of best in the game right now. Also, the sets, equipment’s, the general world building looks authentic, albeit somewhat dated. I mean, I would expect that in the near future, space travel would look a bit more modern than a bunch of gauges, buttons and knobs, but then again I am no space travel expert and the movie looks really authentic in every other aspects, so maybe this too is on the level. But it is safe to say that if space exploration wouldn’t have died off after the moon landing, today we would be at the level depicted in Ad Astra. That being said, Kubrick did the whole space travel thing better.
The acting, as mentioned in the opening, is great. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, taking a page out of Ryan Goslings book. By this I mean that his performance is really restraint, and instead of talking he lets his eyes convey his reaction/message. It is an unusual approach from Pitt, but it works wonders. Second most important role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the father of Roy. Jones too gives a great performance, although he has a fairly small screen time and a role that he could carry easily woken from a drunken stupor. Other supporting roles go to Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, both of which are fine. Liv Tyler is also credited, but she is barely on screen, and has just one scene where she talks, and even there, she talks of a mobile device as a recorded video message. Now, revisiting the trailers after watching the movie, it is clear to me that the first act of the movie was somewhat different at one time and there is a lot of shots that ended on the editing rooms floor. So, it is possible that all the secondary actors had bigger parts in the beginning. Maybe we will find out when the movie is released on home video.
But what I really wanted to talk about this movie is James Gray, the director/screenwriter of this movie. He previously did movies such as The Lost City Of Z and We Own The Night. He himself described this movie as a mix between 2001 A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. While the comparison with 2001 ASO is self-explanatory, I find the comparison with Apocalypse Now to be superficial at best. Yes, in both movies the hero had to travel a great distance to find a once exceptional now fallen from grace character and kill them. But everything else is different. Apocalypse is a war movie, not just because it happens with a war in the background and its characters are soldiers, but because war, and the horror it inflicts on everybody involved, is an essential, vital component of the movie. It is what moves both the hero and the antagonist. Ad Astra is a space opera, but in this case, space is nothing but a setting. Both the hero and the antagonist are astronauts, but they might as well could have been musicians in 18th
century Vienna, and the essence of the story would not have changed at all. You need war for Apocalypse, you don’t need space for Ad Astra.
This is mainly due to the fact that, in essence, Ad Astra is nothing more than a 2 hour long therapy session. How the obsession of the father becomes a destructive force in his child’s life. In this regard, Ad Astra is a perfect companion to Grays previous film, The Lost City of Z, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed by the idea of finding a lost city, that he neglects his family and his son, once at age, in an attempt to win his fathers love, joins one of his expeditions, only to die in it. Here too, we have something similar, but now the viewpoint is the one of the child’s, how he tried to win his absentee fathers love all his life, by shaping his own life in his father’s image, dedicating himself to his father’s ideals, ending up to embark on the same journey to the end of the world in order to reconnect. All the big ideas that are touched upon in the movie, like “is there life out in the universe besides us?”, “where does humanity go in the future?”, “what if we are all there is?”, are nothing more than afterthoughts, something cool to wave in front our eyes, but they are never examined, never explored. These ideas should be the driving force for something like Ad Astra, instead they are barely footnotes. Granted, these concepts are far more complex to process than a screwed-up father-son relationship. To re-enforce the idea of the therapy session, the hero needs to undergo regular psychological evaluations, in order to gain permission to go further with his mission. Apparently, it is not a good thing to be emotional for astronauts.
Honestly, my immediate first choice for comparison was Interstellar, as both movies deal with the salvation of the human race trough the means of space travel and both of them involve a complicate father-child relationship. Also, both of them were shot by Hoytema.
But, at the end of the day, it is irrelevant to which other space opera movie are we comparing Ad Astra. Despite all the visuals and performances, it is a boring story. And while the hero finds catharsis, us, the audience, are underwhelmed. There is nothing for us to stay engaged with, to root for, to offer us satisfaction. It leaves us in the same state as the astronauts are desired to be in it, emotionless.
Which is a pity, because it is rather clear the movie had more to offer, that its world has been conceived in more detail. There are armed conflicts on the moon for territory, there are pirates there as well, but besides an irrelevant buggy chase and a couple of mentions, we get nothing from this idea. There are experiments done in space, but besides a scene worthy of a horror movie, we get nothing more from this either. There is an outpost on Mars, what’s life there? Nope, not a thing. Brooding and self-reflection? Oh yes, please, you can have hours’ worth of that stuff. I could watch 2001 ASO and Interstellar back to back and it still would not feel as long as Ad Astra. Also, it would be a MUCH more satisfying watch as well.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn down the road that originally, this would have been a much different movie, with a much longer run time and that the studio has applied pressure on the filmmaker to trim it down to 2 hours. It’s definitely one of the years bigger disappointments.