AMBITIOUSLY BOLD, YET FRUSTRATING
Tales of space exploration have always been a fascinated medium to present within a cinematic framework. As in real life, mankind’s ambition looks to the celestial heavens above and venture into the vast and infinite space; searching for humanity’s foot hole of pioneering progressions into the cosmos of new worlds and other intelligent life out there. Thus, the age of the “Space Race” and the landing on the Earth’s moon was a great “first step” for mankind’s journey into outer space exploration, with new interest in the possibility of Mars as the next monumental stepping stone for humans to venture to. Given the interest of the endless possibilities of space exploration, Hollywood has taken an acute interest in shaping theatrical features in historical and uncharted endeavor, with some being more grounded in realism (Apollo 13, First Man, Gravity, The Martian, Interstellar, etc.) and others blending into more fanciful sci-fi elements (Alien, Passengers, Prometheus, Wall-E, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.). Now, 20th Century Fox and director James Gray present the latest filmmaking project to tackle space exploration with the movie Ad Astra. Does the film reach for the stars or does it get lost in the cold and emptiness of its own cinematic space?
Calm, cool, and collected, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a celebrated astronaut known for keeping his emotions in-check and steely pragmatic decision making under the harshest of challenges / pressures. While conducting work in Earth’s upper atmosphere, Roy witnesses a mysterious electromagnetic wave that batters the planet (dubbed “The Surge”), which causes violent blackout fury to the masses on Earth. Called into a secret meeting, Roy is informed that his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer hero astronaut, is still alive after leaving for a mission to Neptune several decades ago, and could also be the man possibly responsible for “The Surge”). Fearing the continuing deadly magnitude of “The Surge” and the affects of ending existence on Earth, Roy suits up immediately, making his way to the Moon first, monitored by Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Roy’s handler / contact in seeing if the man can handle the pressure. Dealing with territorial difficulties on the Moon and the secrecy of his mission in journey to Mars (mankind’s last outpost in space), Roy reflects on his shortcomings from his absentee father from his childhood, his military duties, and his troubled marriage to Eve (Liv Tyler). However, the determined astronaut must push aside his inner turmoil as he rockets to the far reaches of space…. towards Neptune and his father.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Carl Sagan once said “If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds. Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze”. To me, I think this is profound statement to humanity’s future; finding mankind’s space exploration to be of paramount importance. Of course, I have been fascinated with space and no I’m just not talking about the science fiction depictions of outer space (i.e. starships, phase blasters, lightspeed travel, and intergalactic alien empires), but more of the practical steps of mankind journeying into the stars, including the Gemini project, the Apollo missions, and even the Hubble telescope (offering glimpses of nebulas, planets, and galaxies in the far distant reaches of the universe). As I mentioned above, the ideas of space travel / exploration have been a fun and entertaining premise for cinematic storytelling. Of course, the juxtapositions of reality and fiction within outer space’s narratives can be both fun and appealing to those particular interest; finding movies like Apollo 13, The Martian, First Man to my personal liking (in terms of realism), while features like Star Wars, Passengers, and Prometheus (yes, I do like Prometheus) to be leaning towards the more fanciful elements.
Naturally, this brings me back to my review for Ad Astra, a 2019 sci-fi drama feature that’s the latest addition to this particular yarn of space exploration. In truth, I didn’t hear much about the movie on the internet (i.e. during its announcement or inherit hype during its production), so I really didn’t pay that much attention to its inevitable release or even creating some eagerness to see it. However, I did see the film’s various movie trailers and TV spots quite a lot (forgot to post the trailers on here…my bad) and the movie did look quite interesting as it sort of reminded me of Interstellar or First Man. Plus, I really didn’t do much research into Ad Astra’s story / summary (beyond the movie’s trailers), so I was of interested in seeing how the film would play out and offer up a “highbrow” sci-fi motion picture. In addition, I was also keen in seeing Brad Pitt in the central lead role of Ad Astra. Altogether, while I wasn’t entirely super excited to see Ad Astra at first, my curiosity inevitable got piqued to looking forward to seeing the film. So… I did. And what did I think of it? Well….I kind of have a love/ hate feeling for the feature. Collectively, Ad Astra offers an intellectually bold and sophisticated sci-fi drama endeavors that bolstered by impressive visuals and a terrific performance from Brad Pitt, but eventually gets lost within its own ambition and storytelling. There’s a real duality of engaging and frustrating while watching the movie, which is a perplexing conundrum.
Ad Astra is directed by James Gray, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like We Own the Night, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z. With a major studio backing the movie, an ambitious project, and A-lister actor in the lead role, Gray sets out to make Ad Astra quite an expansive sci-fi drama feature of which will draw comparisons to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novella or even to 1979’s Apocalypse Now as well as 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And those people who make those similarities are not wrong, with Gray shaping the feature in those veins of storytelling and presentation. Interestingly, despite the vastness of space travel and the scope of movie wants to present, Ad Astra is quite an imitate and personal journey, following character Roy McBride on his journey to uncover the truth of his father and facing inner challenges (mindset and setbacks) along the way. Thus, the film’s script, which is penned by Gray as well as Ethan Gross, presents a character driven feature that works as a slow burner endeavor; slowly unfolding both the Roy’s journey and the film’s visual world. All in all, Gray doesn’t really “reinvent the wheel” in portraying space on film, but he does demonstrate a keen eye for the usage of world building and visuals within Ad Astra.
Of course, one of Ad Astra’s greatest strengths is within its visual aesthetics and presentation, which is beautifully capture and rendered within a cinematic way. Despite some of the criticism viewpoints that the movie presents (more on that below), Gray’s vision for the movie truly does shine within this aspect; presenting a vivid world of Earth’s “near future” that feels grounded within enough realism and believability, but also interjects enough fanciful science fiction nuances to make the state of humanity’s space exploration feel more advanced. This is especially made clear in the feature’s representation of colonies on both the Moon with a lunar base looking like an expansive commercial airport terminal (completely with franchise names and chained restaurants) to the last “outpost” of mankind on Mars, which acts as more of the desolate and barren waystation on the Red Planet (something akin to a science fiction movie). Plus, the idea of warring factions over the Moon’s resources, including marauding pirates, is quite unique and is definitely something different to represent in a “near future” sci-fi movie. Thus, the concept and art direction team, including Kevin Constant, Christa Munro, Alison Sadler, David Scott, and Gary Warshaw, as well as production designs by Kevin Thompson and set decorations by Karen O’Hara, lend a visual credence to the ultimate shaping of Ad Astra’s near future world in an appealing way. What’s also appealing (more so than anything) is within its cinematography, which is thanks in part to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (the mind behind the visual cinematic of Interstellar and Dunkirk). Hoytema’s work on Ad Astra is quite noticeable and his work definitely speak for himself by creating such a stunning and amazingly beautiful shots through the usage of a camera angles and lightening effects in the film. Plus, while I do many times mention the film’s score in my reviews (I’m a sucker for movie soundtracks), Ad Astra’s score, which was composed by Max Richter, is quite compelling; creating atmospheric mood melodies throughout the movie that truly do harmonize with the feature’s visual appeal.
Unfortunately, problems do arise within the movie, which makes Ad Astra, despite its highbrow sophistication and compelling visuals, falter by the time it reaches its conclusion. As I mentioned above, the movie is presented as a slow burner film and, while that might be a good thing to some (allowing the absorption of the movie’s mood atmosphere and cinematography to make a profound statement as well as the character driven moments of the Roy McBride), others will find the movie’s events (or rather how they unfold) in a less favorable light. Thus, those looking for a more robust sci-fi space exploration feature might be turned off by the movie’s slower pacing. Plus, the film’s somber / melancholy tone throughout doesn’t really help the movie’s likeable appeal. I wasn’t punchy comedic zingers, but a few lighthearted moments could’ve help break up some of the movie’s serious gravitas.
To me, my biggest problem with Ad Astra is within its latter half and the ultimate resolution to the narrative. The first half (the first act and part of the second act) feels gripping and engaging; exploring the film’s near future world in both through Roy’s mission / journey and in the backdrop setting of the various location throughout. However, the second half (part of the second act and the complete third act) feels sluggish and underdeveloped. Again, I do understand that the movie is a slow burner endeavor (and I liked that about it), but the latter half of Ad Astra is quite as compelling as the former half. Perhaps this reason stems from the feature’s script, which presents a sort of flimsy story / plot right from the get-go. Of course, Roy’s mission to find his father is interesting (along with his journey of getting to him), but the film’s script has several gaping plot holes and events that the movie just simply glosses over. Chief among them is “The Surge”, the anti-matter electromagnetic surges that causing worldwide frenzy on Earth. The idea is there, but the Gray / Gross’s script just skims the surface on its implications and its disasters potential to Earth. Plus, it’s a bit perplexing as to “how” and “why” it all happens. I wouldn’t say its scientific technobabble of quantum theories (like Interstellar did with its explanations), but I was still left scratching my head as to the cause of “The Surge”.
Additionally, the film’s climatic end point scenes are rather lackluster. Naturally, I wasn’t expecting something completely “big, bang, boom” action sequences, but I was expecting a large revelation shock or some type of “twist”, especially given the sophistication nature of the movie’s integrity and ambition. Unfortunately, what’s presented during this point in the film is rather bland and lackadaisical; seeming like Gray doesn’t have a profound (or even creative) way to close out the feature; offering up a vanilla climax endpiece that doesn’t resonate or even warrant a satisfying appeal. Some might find the movie similar to First Man or Interstellar, but those emotional core in both those movies have a stronger impact than it does in in this film. Thus (collectively speaking), Ad Astra is quite an ambitious film project that works, but doesn’t work well-enough to stand on its own storytelling merits; heavily emphasizing on its visual cinematics rather than its narrative…. a classic dilemma of style over substance.
With Ad Astra’s story leaning so heavily on its main protagonist in both narrative progression and in screen-time, a seasoned and A-listed leading actor such as Brad Pitt is a perfect choice for the film’s central character of Rory McBride. Known for his roles in Meet Joe Black, Moneyball, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt really does carry the weigh of the movie on his shoulder and (thankfully) he does so with theatrical grace and seasoned poise. While he been in a number of movies of large ensemble casts (Ocean’s Eleven, Inglorious Basterds, Once Upon in Hollywood, etc.), Pitt’s return to a more singular / focus lead character driven narrative in Ad Astra and is quite capable of handling it without any flaws within its part. Of course, there are some moments where the character Roy is a bit befuddling (most notably towards the third act), but that’s mostly due to the film’s script handling and not with Pitt’s performance. To be sure, Pitt’s acting in the film is quite a reflection of Major Roy McBride as a understated and subtle persona that seems a bit emotional detached to several situations. Though Pitt grounds the character within those parameters and lending his thespian credence to the feature’s proceedings, which makes his portrayal of Roy quite compelling to watch from start to finish. To be sure, even looking beyond the movie’s visual concept and cinematography, Pitt is perhaps the strongest attribute of Ad Astra.
With Pitt anchoring the movie, the rest of Ad Astra’s cast is, more or less, delegated to smaller supporting roles that are peppered throughout the movie. Unfortunately, with Pitt’s Roy taking centerstage for most of the feature’s runtime, these individuals, including actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive and No Country for Old Men) as Roy’s estranged father H. Clifford McBride, actor Donald Sutherland (MASH and Pride & Prejudice) as Thomas Pruitt, actress Ruth Negga (Preacher and Loving) as Helen Lantos, and actress Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Armageddon) as Roy’s failed love interest Eve, get push to wayside; leaving not much of an impression to make them memorable in the movie. Of course, their acting talents do help elevate their limited character developments / screen-time, but its hard to look pass their weak character builds. Again, some of it seems a bit intentional within Gray’s direction and in Gray / Gross’s script, with Tyler’s Eve is mostly an abstract construct in the story’s background and Jones’s Clifford is to be Roy’s father / son dynamic dilemma, but none of them makes a strong impression, especially in comparison Pitt’s Roy. Thus, it’s a shame as these characters (and the talents behind them) get shortchanged and are underutilized; merely aiding / guiding the character of Roy McBride throughout his journey….and nothing more.
The answers we seek lie within the vastness of space as Major Roy McBride journeys to find his father; confronting truth and challenges along the way in the film Ad Astra. Director James Gray latest feature delves into a “high brow” science fiction drama by creating a feature that’s quite ambitious and bold within its visual presentation and in its personal and imitate character journey. However, while the movie does have a strong cinematic appeal (visuals, concept designs, cinematography, music score, etc.) and a terrific performance from Brad Pitt, film does falter slightly within its own ambitious narrative; offering up a flimsy plot (with plenty of problematic areas) as well as lackluster conclusion and squanders its supporting characters. To me, this movie is both frustrating and intrigued. There’s a certain duality I have about this film as I liked it, but wished it could’ve been done differently in several particular areas…. most notably in the second half. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is hard and definite “iffy choice” as some will like the movie, while others won’t. There’s definitely gonna be debate on the likeability of this movie. In the end, Ad Astra might fail within its larger goals of its ambitious storytelling, but it’s an admirable attempt in its cinematic visuals.
3.5 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: September 20th, 2019
Reviewed On: October 07th, 2019
Ad Astra is 122 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language