Ad Astra, which roughly translates as “through hardships to the stars” is the type of serious-minded sci fi epic that is rare in an era of movies glutted with superhero franchises or Star Wars and Star Trek reboots.
Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut with the ability to stay calm under even the most harrowing of circumstances. This makes him the perfect candidate for a dangerous, covert mission to the outer reaches of our solar system. As the film opens, the earth is being struck by ever-increasing energy surges, crippling all electronics. The government thinks the source of these surges is a failed mission that was headed by Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) decades earlier. Clifford abandoned Roy long ago in favor of deep-space research, but now is thought to be alive. Roy’s mission is to go to Mars and send out a verbal message to his father, letting the government pinpoint the source of the pulse and destroy it.
Why can’t Roy just record his message on Earth and beam it to Neptune? Apparently, the underground Mars facility is undamaged by the pulse, It’s not exactly clear, but I suppose the plot needs Roy to go on an adventure.
On the plus side, during Roy’s journey, we are treated to several impressive action set-pieces, most notably a Mad Max-esque chase on the Moon and an accident on a massive Earth antenna. The action of this movie is of the silently, brutal variety that more closely resembles Gravity than Star Wars. The effects are impressive and sometimes dizzyingly beautiful.
There are also some impressive locations, the most imaginative being mental relaxation rooms in the Mars facility. These rooms are essentially the Calm App writ large, where all four walls are gliding birds or rolling waves. These moments seemed plausible visions of a near-future, while also evoking the “euthanasia theater” where Edward G. Robinson went to die in the 70’s cult classic, Soylent Green.
The acting is also good to great, with the standout being Pitt. He plays a sad, stoic man who is always on the verge of cracking emotionally. As the film progresses, There are many scenes where Pitt’s face fills the screen, and through little-more than tics and quivers, and eventually tears, we can watch the breakdown of Roy’s emotional walls. As impressive as this performance is, one can’t help but wish for the charming, brash Pitt that wowed us earlier this summer.
So, great acting, impressive effects, interesting set-pieces, this must be a fantastic movie, right? Wrong. There are two major flaws in this movie, plot and tone, and since James Gray is both the director and co-writer of Ad Astra, much of the blame must fall on his shoulders.
Gray evidently loves 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now a whole lot, because this movie is a near point-by-point mashup of those two stories. We have a mysterious source of danger at the far-reaches of the universe. We have a detour to the moon before the longer journey, including a mind-bending final segment, and finally a meeting with an old man. We have a covert mission upriver, I mean, to the outer solar system, to meet a possible Kurtz-esque figure. Roy even gives a Martin Sheen-like, world-weary, voice-over through the whole mission, while literally looking at a secret dossier about his own father. For those familiar with Apocalypse Now, this movie nearly comes off as a space parody of that earlier, greater film.
But, the final sin of Ad Astra is that it’s ponderous, pretentious, and ever-so dull. In a year with longer, better, and more interesting films like Avengers Endgame, Midsommar, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which all approached three-hour runtimes, the scant two hours and two minutes of Ad Astra should seem like a brisk thrill-ride. It doesn’t. It’s depressing and dull, with a denouement that is both overly sentimental and cliched.
Sadly, Ad Astra has all the ingredients for greatness, but ends up merely being mediocre.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars