Ad Astra: A Soft, Slow Journey Through The Stars
Writer/director James Gray’s previous quest through the Amazon in Lost City of Z must have made him weary of terrestrial adventures because his latest film, Ad Astra, takes us “to the stars” to explore the humanity that may (or may not) reside on the outer reaches of the cosmos. The film is a visually stunning meditative work that was just a little too emotionally unavailable to completely resonate.
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.
Watching Ad Astra, I was reminded of a conversation I had a long time ago with an old coworker about our favorite sci-fi film. My coworker was an advocate for Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine, which is a fine film until the 3rd act change up; whereas, I maintained an unwavering stance that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the greatest sci-fi film ever made, both in terms of a work of art and a film that forever changed how we think about cinema. My coworker was not impressed. “When is everyone going to get over that movie and move past?!” He asked in a defensive outrage.
The answer to me was always because 2001 is such an iconic work of such singular vision that it still remains largely unparalleled, but watching Ad Astra, I cam to a deeper realization as to why cerebral sci-fi cinema still lives in the shadow of Kubrick’s monolith. It’s because many — if not all — of the thought-provoking sci-fi films that came after 2001 — including but not limited to Ad Astra and Interstellar — feel the need to swim in the shallow end of ingenuity instead of reaching for the stars that they so desperately want to use as a backdrop. That’s the kind of trap that James Gray’s Ad Astra falls into. It wants to evoke the likeness of its many influences (one of which is 2001), but it doesn’t work them to any nuanced end.
Ad Astra pulls influence from a lot of surprising places, but it feels too indebted to them and comes off a little too derivative as a result. The film is basically Apocalypse Now in space, and it feels as though it’s borrowing it’s sci-fi imagery, tone, and action from the likes of 2001, Solaris, and Event Horizon. There’s also a Terrence Malick quality to the film’s meditation and heavy, semi-poetic voiceover. On paper, that certainly sounds intriguing, but the end result is an emotionally distant flatline that sleepwalks through its entire adventure. It also struggles with tone and can’t seem to decide what kind of film it wants to be. There are times when it wants to be an action film full of big set pieces, and there are times when it wants to be a cerebral drama that lightly probes into heavy, complex themes, but it never finds a happy medium that seamlessly blends the two drastically different tones together.
There are a lot of moments where the action feels shoehorned onto the plot to jolt the audience awake, since its cerebral ruminations are neither entirely new or emotionally stimulating. It’s as if Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross knew that their story was slow and boring, so they peppered the flatline narrative with some violent, action-packed thrills. This wouldn’t be such a big problem if these moments felt natural, but the lack of cohesive tone makes it feel like the film is at war with itself. Not to mention, some of the action is goofy and doesn’t even seem to exist within the same universe as the rest of the film — like the space crazed baboons, which we just could not take seriously at all.
Don’t get us wrong, Ad Astra is a beautiful film with a lot of absolutely gorgeous cinematography, sleek direction, and an unusually restrained lead performance from Brad Pitt. It’s very easy to see why other people dig it, but to us, it felt like a film that wanted to live in the shadows of better, more bold and effective films. Its adventure doesn’t possess the insanity or the oddity like Apocalypse Now, and its thought-provoking angles and symphonic cinematography just can’t compete with the mastery of Kubrick or Tarkovsky, which it seems to imitate. In the end, it has some cools things to say about human experience — how some people (even salvation) may be beyond our reach and how we can’t really heal ourselves until we literally let them go — but it takes a little too long getting there, and it doesn’t exactly pay off in the most impactful way.
Recommendation: If you’re dying to see a beautifully lensed space epic you can sleep through, check out Ad Astra. However, if bold vision and challenging sci-fi fare is what you seek, we suggest you turn to Claire Denis’ High Life.
Rating: 3 fits of space turbulence outta 5.
What do you think? Did Ad Astra do it for you? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!