“Ad Astra” Means To The Stars, But In Terms Of Brad Pitt’s New Film. It Only Gets Halfway There In It’s Journey, As The First Half Could Be Considered Masterful & Ends Up Plummeting Into The Atmosphere. While Writer/Director James Gray’s Space Opera Is One Of The Most Wondrous Depictions Of Space, But It’s The Most Expensive Existential & Go Find Yourself Self Help Trip Ever Put On Film. There Is Only One Terrence Malick & James Gray Just Makes A Bad Homage Attempt To Channel The Filmmaker.
Brad Pitt hasn’t been making movies as often as he once was. He is slowly making his re-appearance back on the big screen where he belongs. Only a few months ago Pitt made an outstanding return to form in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”. Pitt who is as A-List as they come and is Hollywood movie royalty, is one of my favorite and finest actors in the business and it’s a pleasure to see him back on movie screens.
That’s why his newest leading man role in “Ad Astra” is a misadventure through space, that feels especially disappointing. Especially considering that the first half of the film could be considered near masterful as it looks to set up something bigger but just Plummets itself into the atmosphere. Both story and Brad Pitt’s bright burning star power gets sucked into the black hole void that is “Ad Astra”.
As described to us in the opening title cards, we are in the near future as Brad Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, son of the famous astronaut Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford whose picture hangs right next to other legendary astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. We come to find that Papa McBride had embarked on a journey to find alien life but was presumed dead somewhere outside the orbit of Neptune long ago. While Roy has made a name for himself as an unshakable tactician whose heart-rate barely even flutters, even when his space station starts to explode, sending him hurtling towards Earth’s outer atmosphere.
As we come to find, the big explosion was caused by some sort of super dangerous space rift, and its source may actually have something to do with his fathers doomed expedition. Roy is then called in on a rescue mission to get his father back and find the answers, and well of course he is perfectly fit for the job given his demeanor and his heritage.
The vibe of “Ad Astra” is way closer to films like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Gravity” & “Solaris”. All better films, even ones that is considered classics as “Ad Astra” is nowhere near as effective (even if it aspires to be). Their just inspirations to this Terrence Malik (“The Tree Of Life”, “The Thin Red Line”, “Badlands”) wannabe filmmaking. There is only one Terrence Malick & James Gray just makes a bad homage attempt to channel the existential filmmaker.
The films trailers emphasize explosions in space and car chases on the Moon, instead “Ad Astra” is the most expensive existential crisis & go find yourself therapy session ever put on film. It’s a slow, contemplative and melancholy story about a son and his long-lost father. The writer and director James Gray specializes and knows how to bring brooding tales of fraught families, especially films about fathers and sons together. Such as in his two best films both starring Mark Wahlberg in “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”. James Gray is so adept at arranging groups of characters on screen and dissecting their conflicting loyalties, that putting the spotlight on just Brad Pitt’s character puts him at a disadvantage.
The father-son bond can be fertile ground for real personal filmmaking, but “Ad Astra”never feels personal. We learn that Roy’s father was abusive toward him as a child. Because of that, Roy now finds himself emotionally detached and unable to connect with others. Aside from his ex-wife played by a wasted Liv Tyler, who could have been any other actress as she only appears in the background of several scenes. He lives only for his work with NASA, where he is admired for his legendary ability to remain calm in stressful situations. Presumably, it’s all because his father didn’t love him. Whether it’s director James Gray or Brad Pitt’s fault, we don’t really see what’s happening behind those steely blue eyes of his.
There are strange characters throughout that come in and out. With the likes of Donald Sutherland as an aging space Colonel or as mentioned Liv Tyler as Roy’s estranged wife. While Tommy Lee Jones who like Sutherland and Tyler, just seems to just be collecting a paycheck. Jones is reunited with Donald Sutherland 19 years later after appearing together in Clint Eastwood’s far superior astronaut film “Space Cowboys”.
The action scenes that are in the film are well staged and leaves you wanting for more sequences like them. The film’s opening sequence wherein Roy falls from an impossibly high space tower, is a unique and exciting action sequence that might rival anything in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” for sheer nail-biting thrills. What’s so brilliant about this sequence is that Gray puts you in the seat. Makes you feel as if you are there, part of that moment and gives you a real unnerving sense of vertigo.
Another early action scene includes a moon-rover car chase sequence that is actually pretty damn cool, especially when you consider an action sequence like this has rarely been done before in a space setting before. Although what’s the deal with the space gun they use throughout the film? That is one of a few things never explained. I never expected to see a car chase on the moon, but this was a cinematic first and it was impressive, until the decision to favor the rover chase in silence with only the sound being the atmospheric score by Max Richter & Lorne Balfe. Although I found doing this was a mistake as it loses the intensity of the action.
I get the goal here was to depict space travel at its most realistic, and indeed the slowness and precision is paired with an awesome visual scope that demands to be seen on the big screen. Gray’s execution of some of the action scenes border on masterful to highly strange including a sequence never explained as Pitt is being attacked by face eating genetically enhanced baboons in space.
Gray and his production designer Kevin Thompson have effectively constructed a lived-in near future where moon bases look like airports, equipped with an Appleby’s, Subway and DHL courier service. It’s a movie with such a marvelous visual tapestry, the journey to the Moon, Mars and beyond offer up a rich array of stunning locations. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) provides each location with its own unique mood and dominant color scheme. Mars is red and desolate, and as Pitt ventures further deep into space the blues and blacks emphasize the coldness of outer space.
It’s a technical marvel of a movie, but it doesn’t help that the father and son story doesn’t really grab the viewer. I quite simply didn’t care for the emotional stakes at hand. After an amazing first half, Gray pumps the brakes hard and slows his film into a sluggish contemplation. By the time Roy reaches the end of his journey, “Ad Astra” has been sleepwalking for nearly an hour. I confess I needed to grab some snacks from the concession stand to stay alert through the back half.
The first half could be considered masterful and looks to set itself up for something bigger, as the second half plummets itself into the atmosphere. Gray undercuts his film’s emotional impact, leaving you bummed out and tired rather than moved, thrilled or intellectually stimulated. It leaves you feeling how Brad Pitt looks through most of the film…worn out and disengaged.
GRADE: ★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5)