Ad Astra has had some pretty diverse reviews. Some people are hailing it as a science fiction masterpiece whereas others seem to think it is a load of preposterous, self indulgent tosh. I can see both points of view but for me it is closer to the former, not a masterpiece perhaps but certainly a compelling and thought provoking film that approaches well known imagery and set ups in an original and refreshing way. There are substantial parts of it that grate and this is clearly why people have taken against it. Take the portentous voice over that punctuates the entire movie, this I could quite happily have done without, but the bits it does well it does really really well.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Brad Pitt’s weird, oblique narration of his own story adds nothing to the tale of this man on a space mission to find his lost father and at worst provides clumsy exposition for scenes that are robbed of their subtlety as a result. There are a couple of plot points that stretch incredulity too. I doubt it is as easy to break into a rocket at the point of its launch as it appears to be here and surely anyone that has seen the trash compactor sequence in Star Wars knows that you don’t let off firearms in small enclosed sections of spacecraft. Also having Liv Tyler deliver sad goodbye messages, via view screens, to loved ones as they head off across the universe to save the world is just too reminiscent of Armageddon. Finally I’m not sure about the baboons. If you can forgive this stuff though, then Ad Astra has a lot of other treats to offer.
The film has drawn comparisons to 2001 and for good or for bad I don’t think it’s similarly mystical posturing earns this. One area in which it is reminiscent of Kubrick’s 1968 genre classic though is in how it shows space in the near future as a place where people work and travel in the most matter of fact way. This gives the movie a more grounded, less fantastical feels that works nicely in its favour and allows the audience to engage more freely in everything that happens. Within this there are moments you’ve often seen played out in cinemas that are given clever new angles in this literally cosmic setting. This film certainly has the most memorable car chase I have seen for a long time and this is only one example of how it plays with cinematic conventions.
I also liked the comfortable pacing which I expect has turned some viewers off. Faceless monologues notwithstanding Brad Pitt gives an excellent performance as a man searching for solutions outside and in and the film gives this time to develop. There are moments of real humanity amidst the tension, action and excitement and there could easily have been a different version of this same story with the same script where the latter totally swamps everything. It’s good that we got this one.
The film wears its metaphor lightly too, unlike 2001 which bangs its symbolism drum like its Alex Van Halen. Even Interstellar, which Ad Astra also echoes and is a much better film, trips over its meaningfulness at the end but here the interpretation is straight forward and is better for it. Brad’s Roy falls off an immense space antenna in a thrilling sequence near the start but even though he survives this he doesn’t figuratively land until the very end. Simple!
Ad Astra has its problems then but overall it is a gripping and fascinating movie with some nice directorial choices. You never quite know where it’s going but I liked where it took me.
The Ripley Factor:
Ad Astra has been spoken of as a parable about dangerous, pent up machismo – both by its fans and its detractors. I’m not sure if this was writer/director James Gray’s intention but it is definitely there. Brad and his dad are definitely both a little obsessive to the detriment of others. Reacting to this from a feminist point of view seems unnecessary though as the film doesn’t explore these notions in relation to the female gender in the way that movies like Ex Machina or The Little Stranger do. Concepts of maleness are shown to be flawed but they aren’t really criticised and while women are marginalised, so are most characters. Women do feature in typically male roles so while the future presented appears to be all about two generations of troubled men it is a future where equality exists.