Steven Spielberg has long maintained that had he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind after marrying and having kids, it would have ended very differently. After becoming a family man, Spielberg balked at the idea that a father and husband would walk away from his family and take a ride off into the great unknown with a bunch of aliens. Has writer/director James Gray become a family man in the short time between his previous movie, 2016’s The Lost City of Z, and his latest, Ad Astra? His new film plays like something of a thematic rejoinder to his last one.
Both movies are about exploration. The Lost City of Z was based on the real life exploits of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon while searching for a rumoured ancient civilisation deep in the jungle. Gray’s film dealt heavily with the issue of how Fawcett spent so much time in the jungle that he missed out on his son’s childhood, but the euphoric way Gray staged the movie’s final scene suggested that the filmmaker’s sympathies lay with Fawcett. Conversely, Ad Astra makes it abundantly clear - too often through its intrusively didactic voiceover - that there’s no place like home.
Ad Astra is a work of fiction, but continues the theme of exploration, and both movies feature protagonists burdened by the actions of their fathers. In Lost City, Fawcett’s father was an alcoholic gambler who muddied the family name in the eyes of British high society. In Ad Astra, a father once again leaves his son behind in search of new worlds. This time it’s Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut who disappears somewhere in deep space after travelling where no one has gone before. Almost three decades later his son, Roy (Brad Pitt), has followed in his father’s moon boots and is himself a high ranking astronaut. When Earth is impacted by a series of power surges that seem to be emanating from a source in deep space, Roy is delivered the news that his superiors believe Clifford is still alive, has murdered his fellow crew members and has gone all Colonel Kurtz, possibly controlling the power surges. Roy struggles to buy this, but agrees to embark on a mission to track down his old man.
Filmmakers have long used space exploration as a front for examining very earthly concerns. Sometimes you have to float thousands of miles above Earth to really appreciate our pale blue dot and all that. Ad Astra suffers in comparison to the work of Kubrick and Tarkovsky whenever it decides to indulge its more philosophical side. Its message is little more than a sci-fi riff on the groan-worthy conclusion of Paulo Coelho’s insufferable novel The Alchemist, that sometimes you have to travel a long way to realise what you have at home. This wouldn’t be so bad if the movie delivered this far from original concept in an organic fashion, allowing the audience to gradually draw such a conclusion, rather than shoving it down our throats from the off. With its emotionally withdrawn astronaut protagonist, Ad Astra invites comparisons to last year’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, but it never quite reaches the emotional heights of Damien Chazelle’s film.
Ad Astra had its release delayed several times, and listening to Pitt constantly tell us what the movie is about through the worst voiceover in a sci-fi movie since the original release of Blade Runner will have you wondering if the narration was added at the insistence of the studio, possibly a result of Disney’s takeover of Twentieth Century Fox. The voiceover doesn’t add anything to the movie, rather it detracts from it, treating the audience as though we’re a bunch of visual illiterates who can’t process and make sense of images. At one point McBride lands on the moon, where the docking station resembles a provincial airport, replete with a Subway sandwich bar and and an Applebees. The picture tells us all we need to know about colonisation, but just in case we weren’t paying attention we have to endure a lecture on said issue via the narration. The voiceover distracts from what is a fantastic, subtle performance from Pitt, one that I’d likely be proclaiming his career best, had I not seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Pitt’s expressive face speaks more truth to his character than his reductive voiceover, and it’s a shame that we’re left to imagine some future DVD cut that excises the narration.
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If at its worst, Ad Astra is Tarkovsky for dummies, at its best it’s a thrilling and thoughtful space adventure, one that features action set-pieces that are infinitely more exciting than anything found in the recent Star Wars films. The movie opens with a vertigo inducing sequence that sees McBride step out onto a giant antenna that reaches up through the clouds and into near space - see it on an IMAX screen and you’ll be wishing the seats came equipped with a safety harness. Elsewhere there’s a set-piece that makes the silly sounding idea of space piracy a very real, very scary reality.
Visually, Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (the latter also responsible for the look of Christopher Nolan’s thematically similar but superior Interstellar) appear to take inspiration from the under-rated sci-fi movies of Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, Outland, 2010), delivering a very 1970s vision of the future, all orange plastic furniture and Scandinavian inspired interiors. On the aural front, Max Richter’s moody score captures the mix of awe and uncertainty at the heart of space exploration, while the under-played sound design reflects the eerie tranquility of the void. If Ad Astra never quite massages the mind as much as it might like, it certainly stirs the senses.
Ad Astra 3 1/2 Stars Out Of 5
Director: James Gray; Starring: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones