While I don’t think AD ASTRA is a masterpiece like some are saying it is, I really, really liked it, and in some parts I even felt love. It is going to be a little hard and a little weird to explain my feelings with this movie, but I hope you can bear with me in my next couple of zany paragraphs. Because, even with the most stupid, inane, and inept space films out there, I always manage to get something out of them. I really do enjoy science fiction films, especially when they give me a sense of claustrophobia without feeling claustrophobic. See? Told you I wouldn’t make any sense with this one. But from the opening scenes to the end credits, I was perfectly enthralled with this, entertained and enjoyed almost every minute of it. There are some glaring faults that prevent me from considering this a true space/science fiction masterpiece, but the movie had a precise narrative flow to it even though some of the subtext and themes get a little lost (or a little too found) in translation.
Even though I would consider this one of the more realistic space/science fiction films in recent memory (especially Interstellar, I mean, come on…that ending), Ad Astra I feel borrows from one too many films to be its own completely unique creation. It’s basically parts Interstellar, parts Apocalypse Now/Heart Of Darkness, parts Alien, parts 2001 A Space Odyssey, parts The Martian, parts Contact all rolled into one adventure that contains heaps of daddy issues. Brad Pitt though is once again excellent as an astronaut given a classified mission after a giant energy surge catastrophe on Earth kills people in the tens of thousands. It turns out this surge’s origin might’ve been on a top secret government/NASA project near Neptune that has been going on for almost three decades the leader of which, is Pitt’s father, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The government sends Brad Pitt to Mars to send a message to his dad to see if their project, which includes searching for extra terrestrial life, is indeed the cause of the incident and could end up eventually destroying all life in the galaxy. But as Pitt goes along in his mission, there is of course more to it than meets the eye, as Pitt struggles with his priorities of seeing/speaking his father again after twenty some odd years, and potentially saving the universe.
From my description, you can probably piece together where all those themes and context from all those different films I listed come into play. Well, maybe except a little for Alien, you’ll get what I mean after you get freaked out with a fantastic tension filled small horror sequence the movie has to offer. The film does feel unique, although it just feels a little too familiar to say it is the “end all be all of space epics.” But I would happily revisit this film again and again, that’s how much it has stuck with me since leaving the theater. The special effects in this film are incredible, with several sequences dazzling my eyes to the tune of wonderment. Specifically, there is a sequence at the beginning with Pitt on a giant space satellite needle that was very vertigo inducing, and there is also a sort of pirate chase sequence involving rovers on the surface of the moon near the beginning of the second act that was pretty stunning to experience. All of the science as well seemed to have added up, except for one sequence near the very end of the film that involves propelling off something while also using a small part of a space station as a shield (you’ll know it when you see it).
The main issue I feel that people are going to have with this movie are the themes and context of it all. For a large part of the movie, the filmmakers spoon feed all of what is happening on screen to audience members that they don’t think would “get it.” Give us credit, we are smarter than we look. Some of this spoon fed stuff comes in the form of Brad Pitt’s narration, which, even though he didn’t seem like he was phoning it in, like the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner, I felt was completely unnecessary. We could’ve figured out everything the film was meaning to tell us on our own, without the narration. The visuals are key in this and were more than enough to clue us in. Another problem is mainly with the daddy issues thing that controls basically the whole narrative. It’s not that the payoff is disappointing, it is that none of the set ups make the ending truly satisfying. It is hard to explain much without going into true spoilers, but the beginning of the film makes it as though Pitt is following his fathers footsteps at being disconnected too much with society. I got that, but I didn’t feel as if that notion were earned. The movie clocks in at around two hours, but to make it a tight film, I feel like they needed to maybe add one or two more scenes with Pitt and Liv Tyler, along with completely taking out the narration.
This is Pitt’s movie, with everyone playing a far, far, far, far second fiddle. Tommy Lee Jones is in it a little, and is good at the parts he is in. That’s all I’ll say on that front. Ruth Negga is also in a couple of scenes, and I enjoyed her presence as well. The ‘and’ in the credits and on the poster is Donald Sutherland and he sort of earns that title, being in the film for only a handful of scenes (good in this as well). I thought his arc would end much earlier than it ended up. The person who is really short changed is Liv Tyler. She’s probably in the film for about 2-3 minutes total, and it is all mostly flashbacks or quick ‘blink or you miss her’ visual cuts. Even though she’s playing basically the same role that she had in Armageddon (staying on Earth while her love is out in space), I think she has matured as an actress (see: The Leftovers) where I would’ve liked to see her blossom a little bit with more of an on-screen role. It honestly could’ve been an unknown playing her character and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference in this case.
And while others are complaining that all the subtext, context, what have you, is all easily displayed on screen, with nothing left to make you think, I for one don’t think that is necessarily true. Again, not to get into spoilers, but I picked some things out of my viewing that I don’t think others would likely get unless the he/she viewed the film several more times. I saw a couple of hidden themes and such that when put together with the rest of the movie, told a more layered and complex narrative than initial believed. I don’t want to go into spoilers, and saying what I think would be doing so, so if you see this and want to discuss, I am available as I would like to see what you gathered from this film as well. See if our minds connected somehow.
Anyway, I really liked this film a lot. Loved some sequences. Yes, I wish it were tighter so it would’ve been a unique masterpiece, but just glad it wasn’t a disaster and that it entertained me the entire time and kept my attention. It really is a beautiful film. Beautifully claustrophobic if that makes any sense to you. This is easily writer/director James Gray’s best film, although I don’t know if that is saying much, considering I only really like this and his last film The Lost City of Z, out of his filmography (never saw The Yards). It really didn’t make all that much in the theater this past weekend, but I have a feeling more people will discover it on video. I mean come on people, it’s Brad Pitt, he usually pics and chooses his projects pretty well. I would definitely recommend you take this visit “to the stars.” (what the term Ad Astra actually means)