Special Effects: B+
I kind of lost my patience with the pretensions Ad Astra from the very start. That very title, in Latin, translates in English to To the Stars. There is no reason to use the Latin title other than to put on airs that it’s a higher-minded movie than it really is.
And even before that title card appears, we are informed this is the “near future.” in a “time of hope and conflict.” In other words, the story begins by oversimplifying global complexities with overused science fiction buzz words and platitudes. What follows is set in a universe that features lived-in settlements and stations by multiple nations on both the moon and Mars. There is no universe in which such things are in the “near future,” unless we’re considering what will be decades away, at best, the “near future.”
Okay, so I’m nitpicking. It’s just a movie. Except it never feels like Ad Astra regards itself as “just a movie.” It is technically very well executed, beautifully shot, with universally convincing special effects which serve the story rather than the other way around. It’s all done, though, as a sort of meditative exercise, Brad Pitt as the astronaut Roy McBride on a classified mission to save the world from mysterious power surges wreaking havoc around the globe. His destination is an outpost at the edge of the solar system, where Roy’s revered astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has long been thought to have died.
And in the end, Ad Astra is far more concerned with this father-son relationship than it is with any clarity regarding these “surges” being traced from that outpost. I spent a lot of time wanting more information about that, and the final cut of the film is even less forthcoming than the trailer was. The trailer features a clip not actually in the movie, of Liv Tyler as Eve, talking to Roy in a hospital bed, about “the surge” and how crazy things are everywhere. Director and co-writer James Gray (The Lost City of Z) can’t be bothered to give any tangible sense of that apparent chaos, save for a couple brief news clips detailing the tens of thousands dead as a result.
Instead, the focus stays exclusively on Roy, and his unique ability to remain calm in any and all situations, and the shock of discovering his father is thought to be alive after all. Ad Astra then becomes a relatively quiet account of his journey, making his way from Earth to the moon, then on to Mars, then on to the research outpost by Jupiter. Nearly every other character exists only on part of his journey, such as Donald Sutherland as his escort to the moon, or Ruth Negga as the woman who assists him on Mars. Even Tommy Lee Jones’s screen time is surprisingly limited in the end, with very little opportunity for much in the way of acting. Liv Tyler is particularly underused, almost to the point of being wasted, existing almost exclusively in fleeting moments on things like saved video clips Eve once sent to Roy on his missions.
Broadly speaking, Ad Astra has nothing new to say, and not a whole lot new to show us. It does have a couple of memorable action set pieces for a movie in which not much else actually happens, including a dangerous chase scene on the surface of the moon, and another fairly frightening sequence with escaped lab monkeys. In the end, though, this movie is short of substance.
Damn is it beautiful to look at, though. If you can appreciate such things as well-executed visual effects and cinematography on their own merits, then those things will make up for a lot. In other words, I can only imagine recommending this movie to others based on conditional criteria. That would include perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the movie: Brad Pitt. As an actor, Pitt has never turned in a more affecting, nuanced performance, and an Academy Award nomination would be well deserved. It is a tragedy that his personal towering achievement should get lost in something otherwise so forgettable and thematically muddled.
Ad Astra is all over the place, in terms of quality. Some viewers may find some of it dull, but I did not — I was engaged from start to finish, albeit with several moments that encourage a bit of eye-rolling. I did not find this movie particularly believable on the science fiction side of it, none of which is necessary for a story about an abandoned son searching for his father. Unless, I suppose, the expanse of the solar system is needed as a metaphor for the emotional distance between them.