About half way through director James Gray’s sixth feature film Ad Astra, I began to find myself thinking, ‘hang on, haven’t I seen this bit before?’ ‘In that other film about space?’ ‘And haven’t I heard this voice over before?’ In that film by Terence Malick about the tree?’
This feeling of déjà vu never quite left me as I ploughed my way through Gray’s self-indulgent space epic/Brad Pitt Oscar vehicle, bitterly disappointed as the film revealed itself to be no more than a style-over-substance space odyssey full of threadbare cliches.
Ad Astra is a film of two halves. One is a visually breath-taking science fiction adventure brimming with seamless visual effects, The other is a tepid father/son melodrama that tries it’s damnedest to drag the rest of the film down to it’s yawn-inducing level. Ad Astra looks poised to kick-start the age old debate of substance over style, and I imagine audiences watching the film will find that which camp they fall in will determine how much they agree with critical opinion.
However you feel, Ad Astra unarguably deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Heralded by the director as ‘the most realistic depiction of space ever,’ Gray uses real-world imagery of space travel but twists and bends them beyond the surreal. Ad Astra is set in the near and believable future, where space travel has become normalised and commercialised, to the extent where you can buy overpriced space towels and pillows. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) lives in the shadow of his legendary father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared on a mission to find artificial intelligence. When electrical surges omitted from the edge of the solar system threaten life on Earth, the desensitised and demoralised Roy must embark on a mission to find his father.
Visually, Ad Astra (meaning ‘to the stars’ in Latin) is a culmination of the decade’s best space odyssey offerings including Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Sunshine. Gray delivers some truly imaginative set-pieces, including one very thrilling rover chase across disputed territory the surface of the moon that makes you feel very close to home. Another fantastic set-piece involving a rescue mission and several angry space monkeys is truly heart-stopping and contributes a satisfying level of gore to this 12A feature.
Roy’s attempt at a meditative voice-over come across as desperately cringey and it all too often sounds like he’s reading from an angsty teenage girl’s diary – ‘In the end, sons suffer the sins of their fathers’ (vague much?). Pitt’s performance is dry and lacking in nuance, yes I know he’s meant to be incapable of showing emotion but truthfully, the entire film feels like a feature length version of his 2012 Chanel advert (see spoofs for much hilarity).
It’s thrilling to watch Roy keep his cool as he falls through the air from a spire located in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, but his emotionless delivery starts to grate as the story becomes less engaging. The ‘tortured man’ trope turns to almost caricature as Roy spends 79 days in deep space, relentlessly flitting between old videos of his father and his ex-wife and the score dramatically sweeps over the scene which tells us we’re meant to feel sorry for him. Liv Tyler plays Roy’s frustrated wife Eve who is so underwritten you almost jump every time she appears on screen because you’ve forgotten her character even exists. Similarly with Tommy Lee Jones’ character Clifford, who lingers in the film like a bad smell only to die in deep space 30 seconds after he is reunited with his son Roy.
Kudos has to go to Max Richter’s score, that carries almost all of the emotional weight of the film with it’s swooping, emotive melodies. I daresay that watching the film with your eyes closed and simply listening to Richer’s score would evoke more emotion than the film itself.
Big existential questions are touched upon but never fully explored and the film is let down by under written characters and a flat leading performance. If Ad Astra is James Gray’s entry for the Oscar, I’d pin my hopes on bagging the Best Visual Effects gong because a Best Picture candidate it is not.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
What’s your favourite sci-fi film of the last decade? Interstellar, The Martian, Blade Runner 2049: any of those? For me The Martianis an absolute masterclass in turning what can be a fairly difficult genre into box-office and critical gold.
Ridley Scott and Matt Damon created one of the best sci-fi films, not only of the last decade, but in the history of cinema and I confidently named it Scott’s best film since Alien,an accolade I still feel it deserves. Fast forward to 2019 and there’s another space flick vying for our attention: Ad Astra, but can it compete with the behemoths of the genre?
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) journeys across a lawless and increasingly dangerous solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) – a renegade scientist who poses a threat to humanity. But not all is as it seems as McBride tries to come to terms with the loneliness of space.
Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) comes to the project as a comparative newcomer to the genre and manages to create a deeply immersive and striking film that’s filled with powerhouse performances from its lead cast.
Brad Pitt is as dependable as ever as Roy McBride, an eerily calm presence over the course of the film. His character arc is nicely fleshed out as he comes to terms with increasing amounts of new information as the running time etches on. Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland is sorely underused but reminds us what a magnetic and relatively understated performer he is and Tommy Lee Jones is again a little short on screen time but manages to pull off a troubling character nicely.
However, Ad Astrais all about the space and it does feel vast here. Shot on a fairly small budget of $80million, James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema bring to the screen some truly striking imagery which highlights the emptiness of our solar system. There are moments of Interstellar dotted about and this is perhaps no surprise, given that Hoytema was the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s film as well.
And while the action is fleeting, the intriguing plot, not spoilt in the trailers, and nicely choreographed sequences add a sense of claustrophobia to proceedings. The film’s strongest scene takes place on a lawless moon and highlights the destructive nature of human beings as a species: immensely powerful stuff.
Unfortunately, for all it does right, Ad Astra falls down in a couple of key areas. The first, and probably biggest gripe relates to the continuous narration Brad Pitt’s character provides throughout. It feels overly pretentious and while we feel his emotional angst from this constant monologue, we would definitely feel the same without it. As it stands, this narration adds unnecessary bulk, not allowing the audience to revel in some of the film’s moments of quiet contemplation.
Secondly, there’s an issue with some of the characters who seemingly disappear without trace, never to be mentioned again, even as the end credits role. These characters are so nicely written and investable that it seems a shame we don’t learn of their fates – perhaps this was intentional, but it’s jarring and at odds with the rest of the film.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t spoil what is a finely crafted and emotionally arresting film. Filled with beautiful landscapes and intense performances from the lead cast, Ad Astra may not be wholly original, but it’s certainly fun while it lasts.