Film Review – Ad Astra
Being a sucker for space epics and Brad Pitt, I am the target audience for Ad Astra. The film appeared to be an epic adventure; a son traveling to the far reaches of the universe hoping that his father is still alive. While it is an adventure, it is hardly the experience viewers are promised based on the trailer.
Ad Astra (“To the Stars”) follows astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he is placed on a top-secret mission to find his father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). While this does not seem like such an impossible task, it is indeed one of the greatest ever undertaken in the world that Ad Astra exists. Clifford McBride bid goodbye to his wife and a young Roy to try to reach the depths of space for the chance to contact other forms of life. The mission was called Project Lima, and now 40 years later, the mission may be sabotaging life on Earth in the form of power surges. The physics and science of this are too complicated to detail here, but the Space Commission is confident that Clifford McBride is still alive and has used anti-matter to create these power surges. What makes Roy the best candidate to find his father is that he is the calmest and collected astronaut ever, with his heart rate never increasing to alarming proportions.
The opening act of Ad Astra is confusing at first. We see Roy in his astronaut suit drifting in space, and then it jumps to him going through a rec area to what we assume is a spaceship. Cue the bewildered looks on viewers’ faces as we are met with the tallest and most complex antenna we have ever seen. Earth is in a desperate rush to make contact with other life forms in our solar system, and this massive antenna is their initial step to do that. As Roy is descending the antenna, a power surge hits, and he is flung off the antenna and flies towards the ground, with a semi-intact parachute saving his life. It is this event and the presentation of the antenna that informs the audience about what type of world this is and what kind of man Roy is. From this rocky start, the film builds its story from there.
The space element to Ad Astra is the flashy setting to what is ultimately a son trying to come to terms with his father’s departure. Roy is not a man without any erratic or extreme emotion, and it has wrecked his life, except for his career. He lost his partner to what I am sure is his disconnect from being emotionally available to her. This new top-secret mission does not illicit any new emotions for Roy, but his walls start to break down as he is forced to come closer in proximity to his father. His father is believed to be dead but is now possibly alive but millions of miles away. As the miles shrink between them, Roy starts to process what his life has been like without his father and imagine what it would be like finally meeting him face to face.
Given the futuristic space setting, this is an imagined world where commercial space travel has become commonplace. People live on the Moon, and it has been a commercialized hub as well as a place rampant with territorial disputes and pirates. Nothing can prepare you for seeing Applebee’s, Subway, or Nathan’s Famous on the Moon. This fictional world must love Applebee’s because the chain struggles in ours. The most exciting scene in the film involves pirates attacking Roy and his escorts while driving on the Moon’s surface to get to a secret launchpad. It is another scene that illustrates Roy’s stability and composure under pressure.
Like any space film, viewers must suspend disbelief to be taken on the ride of Ad Astra. Too many errors happen for Roy to be successful in his mission, and he manages to survive against all the odds. Director James Gray who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ethan Gross took liberties with what was necessary to convey Roy’s emotional journey. There is a particular scene involving lab animals in space that is the scariest moment in the film, yet there was absolutely no purpose to it and could have been completely cut from the film. Thankfully, the film is just over two hours long and not the commonplace three hours for this genre. Even so, it felt longer, and the space elements of the story at least kept the surroundings interesting.
The ultimate failing of Ad Astra is its main character, Roy, in making him a stiff, emotionless robot. We know Brad Pitt is capable of phenomenal acting, but Ad Astra did not showcase his ability and stifled it instead. There is no joy in watching Roy’s emotional journey, and it makes the film’s story tedious and boring. There is a great supporting cast like Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, but their talent, like Brad Pitt’s, are not used to their full capacity. Liv Tyler is barely in the film. What can be praised is the stunning cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and the musical score by Max Richter. There are elements of Ad Astra that are brilliant, but unfortunately, the main character and the story are not one of them.