Ad Astra (2019) – Film Review
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
by Roger Crow / @RogerCrow
Now as it’s autumn, for the past few years there has been a tradition of launching intelligent sci-fi movies in the hope of landing a Golden Globe, and then an Oscar or two. The likes of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian were all released in this season, so little wonder Ad Astra has also slotted in now the silly summer movies have been put to bed.
As a lover of intelligent sci-fi, I have long been yearning for that next big epic which would dazzle my eyes as well as my brain, but what nearly always happens is solid actors go long distances and then the end is a huge cop out.
Remember Jodie Foster epic Contact? That promised much, from its dazzling pullback from Earth through the stars to its intergalactic travel scenes… only to end with what looked like a Bounty advert. Interstellar was also a disappointment at the end, while Arrival was so achingly sad, I’ve not been able to watch it in years.
Ad Astra is thankfully a lot more on the money.
Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, the astronaut whose pulse rate rarely goes above panic level, which makes him perfect for any chaotic situation. When he’s involved in a Felix Baumgartner-style incident which sees him fall from space thanks to an energy pulse, we’re treated to a vertiginous action scene which probably leaves IMAX viewers feeling a tad queasy.
It turns out the pulse has emanated from Neptune and is threatening life on Earth. The cause is man-made, and the antagonist behind said threat is Brad’s dad, H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). To solve the problem, Brad must blast off to try and reason with Tommy a mere 2.7billion miles away. Obviously not an easy task.
“Baffling and nail-biting”
First he must take a commercial flight to the Moon, where he and ally Thomas Pruitt (TLJ’s Space Cowboys co-star Donald Sutherland) run into some bad guys in a thrilling action scene involving buggies. (I was reminded of gloriously cheesy old Hammer flick Moon Zero Two).
Then it’s off to Mars, where Brad broadcasts in a weird recording studio. (I hope somebody has done a Toast of London meme with the caption “Yes, I can hear you Clem Fandango”). The hope is that Tommy will pick up said broadcast, stop being such a bad dad on a galactic scale and come home.
Eventually Brad blasts off for Neptune in a scene which is both baffling and nail-biting. Apparently there’s zero security at Mars’ rocket base, so anyone can get on board a ship.
Yes, there are huge plot holes in Ad Astra, and while this is essentially Apocalypse Now in space, we have to sit through a good hour of Brad’s inner monologue. Which is fine if it’s as well written as Apocalypse Now, but there are times this really isn’t.
It’s so ’Los Angeles’, with its scenes of introspection and shrink-worthy “Daddy never loved me”-style moaning, that I do wonder if Brad visited a psychiatrist and wrote off his sessions as research.
Sadly there are times when it’s also reminiscent of Terence Malick’s horrendous Christian Bale flop Knight of Cups. (A bit like a pretentious feature-length Johnny Depp perfume ad).
“Still thinking about it a day later”
When I watch it on DVD, I hope there’s a version with just the score and no dialogue. As Elvis so wisely reminded us, a little less conversation, a little more action please.
That said, the third act is fabulous.
The emotional resolution is just the satisfying solution I was hoping for, and should resonate with anyone who had, or is having a troubled relationship with their ageing dad. As someone who lost theirs six months ago, it touched a raw nerve the way Contact didn’t, but that’s partly down to the brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones and partly down to timing.
And if you’re a fan of Dark Star, as I suspect the filmmakers are, there’s a terrific ending in which our hero attempts to get from A to B via a perilous route.
Ad Astra is both an intellectual art house film and a mainstream blockbuster. There are times it’s an uneasy fit, but as a cineaste who loves both, the fact I’m still thinking about it a day later is testament to its troubled brilliance.
Director James Gray packs so much into the 122-minute running time that it felt half an hour longer. The fact I’d happily see it again is proof of how well it worked, despite its fuzzy science and the length of Brad’s beard between planetary jaunts, which bugged me almost as much as the excessive voiceover.
Go in with low expectations and it works wonders.