Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
The impulse to balance exciting, kinetic thrills with a thoughtful story and introspective characters is admirable in theory; recent movies like Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman show that it can be done. But the problem with this inclination in Ad Astra is that the cosmic themes are less revelatory than the movie thinks they are, and the characters' dramatic plight is surprisingly trite and uninvolving. Here, contrasted with rote daddy issues and the inability to connect to one's romantic partner, scenes involving murderous baboons and a car chase on the Moon (complete with space lasers) feel inevitably more rousing.
Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, a major for the U.S. Space Command in the near future, when depleted resources on Earth have forced us to search the solar system for alternatives. In the stunning first scene (which sets a high point that the movie rarely matches), Roy is performing maintenance on a space satellite at the furthest reaches of our exosphere when an electrical surge causes a series of explosions that send Roy plummeting to the Earth thousands of miles below. Practically unfazed (much is made about Roy's preternatural calmness, as his heart rate never rises above a mild tempo), he soon learns that the electrical surges have spread across the globe, and indeed our entire solar system, causing cataclysmic disasters and numerous deaths. The surges seem to be the result of a signal sent out from a remote base near Neptune, part of something called the Lima Project—a quest to discover extraterrestrial life in the universe, headed by Roy's father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), which hasn't been heard from in almost 16 years.
So begins a journey that's overburdened with significance, both existential and personal: reuniting with an estranged father, learning how to process internal emotions and mindstates, grappling with our apparent isolation in the cosmos, searching for nothing less than the meaning of life. Ad Astra craves this grandiose tone, but it doesn't quite earn it. The most compelling ideas and questions are those that emerge organically from the story, without being hammered home through didactic narration or dialogue. Climate change is never mentioned explicitly, but in this near future where the Moon and Mars have been colonized, the implication is we've passed the point of no return, making the film's more overt theme of the sins of fathers being inherited by their sons (gender specificity intentional) pointedly political. More broadly, the nihilistic question of why we should go on at all when faced with impending destruction becomes a surprisingly stark catalyst for the last act of the movie, when all hope seems lost. The lofty ambitions of Ad Astra are inherent in its story, and a more confident film would have trusted the audience to ponder these ideas themselves.
As it is, Ad Astra feels the need to adopt a solemn, ruminative tone, complete with oblique flashbacks to Roy's failed marriage to the pretentiously named Eve (Liv Tyler, yet again playing "the woman left behind") and dreary narration supplied by Pitt's monotone voiceover. Providing exposition and emotional context through voiceover narration is one of the laziest structural devices known to cinema—Billy Wilder and Paul Schrader may be the only two screenwriters working in English to have mastered it—and Ad Astra's writers, James Gray and Ethan Gross, are no exception to the rule. (Perhaps they're overly influenced by the similarly portentous The Tree of Life, also starring Brad Pitt, though at least in that case the pietistic tone feels warranted.) Vanished fathers and emotional frigidity can be compelling dramatic subjects, but not when the characters (especially those surrounding Roy) are as thin as they are here. Eve, glimpsed only in lugubrious fragments, comes off only as a symbol for womanhood, not as a flesh-and-blood human being, sapping any emotional resonance from their strained relationship. Roy's father Cliff fares only marginally better—when the two eventually reunite, Cliff is revealed to be a combustible mix of hopelessness and megalomania—but one wonders why Roy is so obsessed with reconnecting with a man he's never known. The movie just assumes we'll be invested in the biblical nature of fatherhood (searching for dad = searching for God/meaning) and doesn't invest Roy and Cliff's relationship with the pathos it needs to be emotionally effective.
None of these weaknesses should be attributed to Pitt, who's hypnotic whenever he's on screen (which is most of the film). One of the last great movie stars under-emotes effectively, and while the turgid voiceover is frequently grating, Pitt does what he can to invest the words with meaning. Admittedly, his role doesn't consist of much more than gazing significantly, but in this case that's enough, and serves the movie's intended purpose of studying an insular, inexpressive character. Intentionally or not, Ad Astra becomes a self-reflexive comment on the divine nature of movie stars (the astra of the title thus having more than one meaning); they're rapturous, celestial bodies without having to do anything at all. (That's also one of the main themes of Pitt's other controversial vehicle from this year, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood.)
Some critics have noted that Ad Astra feels like the sci-fi blockbuster we need right now: an apocalyptic story about extinction and fleeting hope, centering on two emotionless men who in some ways embody toxic masculinity, holding any kind of human connection out of reach. I think this oversells it a bit; the themes and characters are intermittently interesting but hardly representative of what it means to be alive today. It seems more accurate to say that this is the sci-fi blockbuster critics think we need right now, so invested are many of them in imbuing significance on something that primarily excels at awe-inspiring, sensational cinema.
The assumption that movies are only valuable if they contain hot-button themes or allegorical stories is in some ways unfortunate (and something that I found off-putting about Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake). More dazzling to me (and, perhaps, true to the art form) are those indescribable moments of visual and aural majesty that are overwhelmingly visceral, something only cinema can provide. (This, after all, is how film started, with the cinema of attractions that wowed audiences for several decades until narrative and character began to predominate in the 1910s.) Ad Astra has several such moments of astounding cinema: Roy's freefall to Earth from the silky-black border where the planet meets the cosmos, a moon rover's silent leap into a gaping crater, a spine-tingling image of a mad primate on an abandoned research vessel gnawing on an astronaut's corpse. Writer-director James Gray is capable of such euphoric filmmaking, and his moralizing is usually less overbearing, as evidenced by The Lost City of Z, one of my favorite movies of 2016. (I thought The Immigrant, his 2013 film, was more problematic, but does have one of the best closing shots of any movie in recent memory.) With Ad Astra, though, he makes a grave mistake in overshadowing what his movie does best, almost as if he's ashamed of its exhilarating rush of sound and image. He overloads the seriousness and thematic import, and in so doing dilutes the truly wondrous things that this movie (and cinema in general) can accomplish.
Premiere: August 29, 2019 (Venice Film Festival)
US Release: September 20, 2019
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios
Director: James Gray
Producers: Dede Gardner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Brad Pitt, Rodrigo Teixeira
Writers: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Kayla Adams, Ravi Kapoor, Liv Tyler