James Gray’s Ad Astra. It’s difficult for me to get my thoughts out on this one while still dodging spoilers but here goes. This was kind of a disappointment for me, not because it’s a particularly weak or mediocre film but rather it was something wholly different from what I was expecting. That too isn’t necessarily a cardinal sin but when your trailers and marketing campaign suggest one thing and your film blatantly does another, that’s a problem. In any case this wasn’t the ‘reach for the stars’ mysterious, ponderous SciFi epic that I got the impression of off the bat, but perhaps that’s just me.
Brad Pitt gives a grounded, meditative, cleared eyed performance as Roy McBride, earth’s most accomplished astronaut save for his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has taken up residence somewhere near the rings of Neptune and caused quite a bit of trouble in a decades long campaign to contact extraterrestrial life. So begins Roy’s voyage out past the moon, Mars and towards the edge of our solar system to locate his dad’s research project, put a stop to the havoc it’s causing and set to rest the personal turmoil raging inside him, which is my fancy way of saying considerable daddy issues. There’s many diversions and they’re all handled nicely including an attack from vicious baboons in swooping zero gravity, a politically fuelled mutiny aboard a transport craft and a moon rover chase that feels comfortingly like Mad Max. Others provide supporting talent including Donald Sutherland as his dad’s ex pal hired to babysit part of his journey until that arc is cut disappointingly short. Liv Tyler is wasted on the thankless wife role that has no depth or vibrancy beyond looking worried, while Ruth Negga, Loren Dean and John Ortiz fare better as others he meets along the way.
So where does this falter? There’s a type of science fiction film that expands outward as characters explore their universe and reach for the great unknown while also feeling inward, finding themes of love, relationships and intimacy through something so grand as a journey into space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris are probably the best example of this. This one ultimately fails at that, or at least going all the way and achieving something as profound as the examples I’ve given. Many elements work, including Pitt’s impressively centred, soulful performance, a beautifully atmospheric original score by Max Richter, stunning visuals and clever world building (somehow the fact that Virgin Atlantic does commercial flights to the moon in the future seems hilariously on point). But there’s an absent nature to the overall arc that can’t be overlooked. It’s sadly ironic that a film whose title translates to ‘To The Stars’ falls so, so far short of actually reaching them. You take this trip with Roy, experience everything he does and just when the penultimate moment approaches and you prepare for some soul nourishing pay off… your grasp closes on emptiness, and what’s worse is that was what Gray was actually intending, in a way. I get what he was going for and appreciate the effort this is the wrong film to pull a stunt like that with. Didn’t work for me overall.