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Josh Reviews Ad Astra

At the start of James Gray’s film Ad Astra, we see astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on a space platform in low Earth orbit, when a mysterious “surge” destroys the platform and nearly kills him.  As the mysterious power surges continue to range across the planet, threatening to destroy all human civilization, the U.S. Space Command tells Roy that they believe the surges are connected to the Lima Project, an expedition beyond our solar system to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  The Lima Project was commanded by Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride.  Roy believed that the mission had gone wrong and that Clifford had died, years ago.  Roy is sent on a mission to track down what remains of the Lima Project, and perhaps his father, in order to stop the surges and save the planet.

There’s a lot that I like about Ad Astra, through the film doesn’t quite come together the way I’d hoped.

The film is very quiet and somber.  There is an elegiac tone that hangs over the entire story.  It’s an interesting choice, one that separates the film out from your average sci-fi adventure.  There is an adventure aspect to Roy’s mission, but the film doesn’t treat it as such.  There are a couple of outer-space action sequences — like a fight between moon-rovers speeding across the lunar surface, and an investigation into a derelict spacecraft that turns tragic.  But the film doesn’t lean into the fun or excitement of those sequences.  This film is closer in tone to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris than it is to, say, Apollo 13.  Although I know some people have found the film to be boring, I didn’t see it that way.  I am all for a sci-fi film that is treated more like an adult drama or character-study than an action-adventure shoot-em-up.

Brad Pitt is terrific as Roy, and what works in the film can mostly be said to rest squarely on his shoulders.  Mr. Pitt’s Roy is really the only character that is at all developed in the film.  We follow this story exclusively through Roy, and the film is so internal to Roy’s character that the absence of other developed characters feels like a conscious choice rather than a mistake (though it does nevertheless feel to me like a mistake; more on this in a moment).  But Mr. Pitt is terrific at bringing us into the story, and allowing us to slowly access what’s going on inside this quiet, stoic military man.  A lot of the film is played in close-up, and his face and eyes do a lot of the heavy-lifting.  It’s a powerful performance and a great use of Mr. Pitt’s often underestimated skills (even as the film intentionally dials back his movie-star charisma to almost zero).

There are plenty of other fine actors in the film, though I consistently felt that the film kept us at a distance from them, preventing us from getting to know them as well as I might’ve hoped.  Donald Sutherland plays Colonel Thomas Pruitt, a friend of Roy’s father who accompanies him on the mission at the start.  I immediately suspected that Pruitt knew more about the truth of what happened to the Lima Project, and Roy’s father, than he was letting on.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t wind up mining that for much drama, and Pruitt’s character drops out of the film earlier than I’d expected.  Ruth Negga (Loving) is terrific in her few scenes as Helen Lantos, a woman in command of a key outpost on Roy’s journey who has an unexpected connection to the Lima project.  I wish her character was in more of the film.  Liv Tyler pops up for a few moments in flashbacks as Roy’s ex-wife.  I can’t believe such a famous actress agreed to appear in what’s basically a cameo.  Was there more of her character in the film originally, that landed on the cutting room floor?  And then there is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Roy’s father Clifford.  Mr. Jones was glimpsed in the film’s trailers and is seen early in the film in recorded imagery of Roy’s father during the Lima project’s early days.  It doesn’t take a mastermind to guess that they wouldn’t have cast Mr. Jones to only appear in a few recordings, so it’s not a shock to say that Roy’s dad does enter the story before the end.  I’ll discuss this more, below, when I get to the spoiler section.

Ad Astra has been trumpeted as containing a very realistic depiction of space-travel as it might truly exist in the near future.  I like this aspect of the film and appreciate this attempt at verisimilitude.  It gives the film a reality and a weight that assists with the more fantastical aspects.  However, for a film that’s being promoted as being as realistic as possible, the story does contain rather more turns into fantasy than I’d expected.

The film certainly does contain some memorable imagery.  The opening sequence, with the accident on board the space platform and Roy’s fall back into Earth’s atmosphere, is thrilling.  It’s my favorite sequence in the film.  I enjoyed the depiction of a “commercial” flight to the moon (shades of 2001), and of the U.S. military installation on the moon.  The idea of lunar rovers equipped for military combat was cool.  The mid-movie sequence in which Roy and the Cepheus commander investigate a spaceship in distress was tense — and the shocking ending of that sequence has stuck firmly in my mind.  I enjoyed all that the movie showed us of travel to Mars, and I enjoyed our peek at the Mars installation.  Roy’s solitary journey to Neptune, and his travels through its rocky rings, were also very memorable moments with beautiful and haunting imagery.

SPOILERS ahead, gang.

I was engaged with the film up until the ending, which I found to unfortunately be a letdown.  I have two main objections.  First off, although the film is set up as a mystery — Roy has to travel across the solar system to discover the source of the surges — the resolution to that question was very underwhelming and didn’t make much sense to me.  Something in the Lima Project’s ship’s antimatter power source had malfunctioned, and that was causing the surges?  I’m not sure there is any plausible scientific basis for that explanation, and narratively it’s a huge anticlimax as this whole humanity-threatening situation seems to have just been caused by a minor technical malfunction.

The greater problem is the underwhelming nature of Roy’s encounter with his presumed-dead father.  We, like Roy, spend the entire film wondering if Clifford is alive, and what he’ll be like when Roy meets him.  The set-up of the film led me to believe that Roy had turned evil, that the surges were a malicious, intentional act caused by him in an effort to do harm to Earth.  (For what reason I didn’t know and hoped to find out.)  I’m completely OK with the film’s going in a different direction.  In some ways I’m very happy the film didn’t take the more expected path of having Clifford be a villain.  But I don’t know what to make of Clifford when we finally meet him, and we spend so little time with him at the end that we don’t really get a chance to find out.  I guess he’s gone insane… and he turns out to be suicidal… but I wanted to know so much more.  Did he know what his actions had caused back on Earth?  How did he feel about that?  How did he feel about seeing his son again after so many long years of isolation?  How had those years of isolation affected him, after he’d killed off his crew-mates?  I had so many questions, questions the film seemed designed to have me as an audience member ask.  And so I was disappointed that the film didn’t take the time to allow us to get to know Clifford better, and to get some answers to those questions.

And so, in the end, this whole long somber journey felt somewhat like a waste of time to me.

I am glad to have seen Ad Astra.  There is impressive technical skill on display.  The story has interesting aspects to it.  Brad Pitt’s performance is top notch, and he’s surrounded by a very strong, albeit underused, supporting cast.  I wish I could say the pieces fit together into a more satisfactory whole.

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