Film review: ‘AD ASTRA’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Ad Astra is almost a great sci fi film. With a physical beauty reminiscent of Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey, weighty themes such as the fragility of life on earth and the fundamentally destructive nature of human beings, it’s an aesthetically striking and at times thought-provoking film. Unfortunately, the film rests on a dull father-and-son reconciliation story that fails to provide the much-needed central drama or emotional impact.

Set in the near future, the film sees Earth facing catastrophe as its bombarded by mysterious cosmic rays emanating from Neptune.   The only man seemingly capable of resolving this deadly phenomenon is renowned scientist Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee jones) who was once presumed dead but appears to be the last living inhabitant of a space vessel orbiting Neptune. Fearing Clifford has flipped out, the government decide the only person who can communicate with him is son, astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) who is despatched into outer space to contact his dad. As Roy leap-frogs from the Moon to Mars and beyond, his journey becomes as much a trek into his psyche as into the far reaches space.

This film needed an emotionally gripping central performance but that’s not Pitt’s wheelhouse; in his hands, Roy’s personal journey doesn’t resonate. Roy’s meant to be on a cathartic trip, confronting a life-shaping emotional torment but Pitt’s grumbling, monotone and expressionless performance leaves him an unengaging and barely empathetic character. Jodie Foster was much more compelling in a similar role in Contact.

The film is clearly meant to evoke Heart of Darkness or at least Apocalypse Now which is fine in itself but it also means that Pitt delivers most of his lines Marlowe/ Willard-style as an internal monologue voice-over. This is meant to immerse us in his troubled mindset but it just provides unnecessary exposition as Roy talks about events that we can clearly see. Cut out his more superfluous commentary and it would have excised a good chunk of this slow-moving 124-minute film.

Ad Astra is, however, masterfully directed by James Gray who gave us the vastly underrated Lost City of Z which, interestingly, also featured a perilous father/ son adventure storyline. Gray conjures indelible sequences including a deadly battle with space pirates as Roy hurtles across a vast desolate moonscape and a stunning sequence as a calamity on the edge of the atmosphere sees Roy plummet toward the Earth. Gray unashamedly references 2001: A Space Odyssey and some scenes so closely resemble sequences from the Kubrick classic we’d be forgiven for expecting Thus Spake Zarathustra to start welling up on the soundtrack. He does, however, scuzz up the symmetrical purity of Kubrick with a little grit reminiscent of Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

The film also provides elaborate and convincing depiction of a future in which commercial spaceflight is standard but also one in which ugly commercialism, crime and crueller human instincts have reached their tentacles into the solar system.

Ad Astra offers beauty, mystery and invention but in the end feels unsatisfying. If only the storyline had been as inspired as the artistic vision here, we would have a classic.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Science Fiction.

Classification: M.

Director(s): James Gray.

Release date: 19th Sep 2019.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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