In a lot of ways, someone coming off of a historical drama feels like the person most equipped to make a sci-fi. Both genres call for fully realized worlds markedly different than our own, and they further require that the worlds actually interact with the characters in a meaningful way. I didn’t have a lot of interest in Ad Astra until I found out it was made by James Gray, Writer/Director of one of my favorite movies of previous years, Lost City of Z. Truthfully I just thought it was another astronaut movie, a la First Man. When I found out it was about trying to get to the edge of the universe to stop a potential mad scientist, I was more intrigued.
In truth, that’s more of less the whole synopsis of the movie. After a “surge” hits Earth, knocking out the electrical grid and killing thousands, US Space Command (referred to as SpaceCom throughout the flick) bring Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) in for questioning and a new mission. Years ago his absentee father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) led the Lima Project to the edge of the solar system, intending to find alien life. When the ship reached Neptune, it went dark. But SpaceCom believes Clifford is still alive, and what’s more, that the engine of the Lima Project is responsible for the surge. They fear there are more coming, and hope Clifford will respond to a direct appeal from Roy. To get a message to Neptune, they must get him to Mars. So, away he goes.
As with Lost City of Z, Gray makes the decision to sculpt a complex and full world, and then let it hang mostly in the background, focusing almost entirely on a single character instead. This is a good choice – engaging with an entire world is better left to the realm of books in my personal opinion. A well thought out world is still an asset in film, but it serves best where Gray leaves it: as backdrop while he investigates character. The leads of both films are shockingly similar – both Roy and Fawcett are driven by a singular obsession, and their laser focus is tearing apart everything else in their life, even if they don’t care. Fawcett’s obsession stemmed from the fact that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was right. Roy’s obsession is more ambiguous. He is obsessed with his father, yes, but even he admits he can’t quite figure out what about his father obsesses him. Does he admire his father? Hate his father? Want to understand him? Does he need answers? Or does he want to destroy the man? Roy doesn’t know, and Pitt delivers a fantastic performance of a man who is boiling underneath a calm surface. Roy has so many emotions, so many thoughts and feelings and ambitions, but without solving this central dilemma he finds it impossible to make sense of any of them, so they float around, useless and disorienting. He is calm not because he feels peace but because he has to be, or he will be absolutely overwhelmed and consumed.
If it feels like I’m dancing around my own reaction to the movie at large, though, I am, because I simply didn’t find it that engaging. I wish I did. All the elements are there. A writer-director I like. A cinematographer I’ve enjoyed in the past (though I do find Hoyte van Hoytema almost too clean, sanitized, and stark sometimes (fishing for the right word here), and most definitely missed the more languid and lush Lost City of Z work by Darius Khondji). A genre I love. A well realized world. A great lead performance. They’re all wonderful elements, but they never coalesce into anything greater. The film is hamstrung by its ham handedness. I’m a firm believer that V.O. doesn’t have any place in film, and while I also firmly believe that rules are meant to be broken, and that one day I will eat those words and say “oh, this is the film that shows V.O. is the way to go,” this film isn’t it. Pitt’s performance and ambivalence towards his father is winning, but the relationship itself doesn’t feel that way. I know that Dads can be bad. I’ve already watched LOST. Ad Astra fails to explore any new paths in this story, and fails to marry the story to its greater ideas. There are greater ideas here, and the ending does have some power, but the actual relationship feels paper thin, even with Pitt pumping as much as he does into it, and the opening sequences, while intriguing and strong in the way of world building, don’t really expand upon anything within the characters. Frankly, while the sequences are cool, they still feel sort of boring to me. I checked my phone at the 40 minute mark because I felt like I had been in the theater forever but also that the movie was just beginning to begin. That’s not a great place to be.
Maybe it will grow on me. Lost City of Z did, but even while watching it I felt hypnotized by it, as if it were worming its way into my brain. Ad Astra lacked that feeling.
I give Ad Astra 6.5 angry baboons out of 10 Mars projection rooms.
- Normally I would say it’s unfair to compare two movies by the same director so openly. People are allowed to have many things to say, and they do. But the two movies have such similar protagonists and general outlines that I think I may have drawn a correlation even if it weren’t the same director. Directors have lots of things to say, but this felt like the same director saying a similar thing.
- Wives get the short end of the stick in both movies too. In Lost City of Z the Wife is totally supportive of Fawcett’s obsession. In Ad Astra, the Wife and Pitt fall out because she finds his obsession to be too much. Which… was he not always obsessed? The movie makes it seem that the answer is yes. So, why did they get married? What changed? What does she want? We don’t know. She’s hardly a character, even though the movie pretends she is a central one.
- There’s a very weird sequence where Pitt boards a spaceship, murders the entire crew, and then… does what they were going to do anyway? It makes… a little bit of sense in the movie, but (roomate) Frank and I were talking and equated it to if someone stood up mid-flight, murdered the plane’s captain, and then calmly finished the flight normally. It’s… confusing. Especially since Pitt seems to suffer no consequences for it, and is greeted as a hero afterward.