James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is a film that deals with many weighty topics. How do our relationships with our parents affect who we become? What is the difference between who we are and how we want the world to view us? Are we alone in the universe, and what would the answer even mean to us? This is truly an ambitious project and one that seeks to have a deep, complex meaning.
The film also boasts beautiful visuals, presenting complicated effects with the utmost degree of realism in order to fully immerse the audience into the world onscreen. In addition, the film’s worldbuilding is expertly done, giving us what appears to be a highly plausible view of what humanity’s future could hold, especially if we continue our fascination with the exploration of the heavens. The sequences concerning commercialized moon travel and the extraterrestrial space stations feel particularly well-realized.
All of these are major strengths of the film and remind us of why films about space travel continue to enchant movie-going audiences.
This is why it pains me to say that, for all of its technical marvels and ambitious themes, the film lacks one major ingredient that holds it back from reaching its potential: Subtlety.
Complex father-son dynamics are no stranger to films about space. “Return of the Jedi” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” both deal with sons who must come to terms with an absent father who has let them down, but these films wisely tell that same story as the backdrop to a larger narrative with interesting characters and entertaining sequences of adventure and wonder. “Interstellar,” a film which “Ad Astra” seems to heavily borrow from, also contains a variation of this theme, focusing on the relationship between a father and his daughter.
“Ad Astra” mainly relies on clunky, heavy-handed internal monologues from Brad Pitt to inform us of his feelings of abandonment, insincerity and psychological trauma. Whereas Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” leaves much of its meaning up to audience interpretation, “Ad Astra” leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination and tells the audience everything. This creates a hollow viewing experience, as there is no room for speculation or engagement with the film. We know what every character is thinking or feeling because they tell us directly.
Wonder if a character is feeling sad or angry? Don’t worry, because that character will say exactly what they are feeling in stiff, unnatural dialogue which only serves an expositional purpose. Looking forward to a quiet, challenging moment now that Pitt is alone? That’s too bad because he is about to shower you in unnecessary narration.
In terms of the acting, it is nothing special. Brad Pitt turns in a fine performance, but one that is stifled by the insufferable dialogue he has to deliver. His shining moments come when he is allowed to act through facial expressions and show us what he is feeling instead of telling us outright. None of the other cast members linger long enough to make an impression. Donald Sutherland’s scenes probably amount to roughly ten minutes of screen time and Tommy Lee Jones seems to get even less. The rest of the film is littered with well-known actors and actresses like Liv Tyler and Lisa-Gay Hamilton who are barley given a line.
The final flaw of the film is in its pacing. While the first act moves along at a brisk pace and provides legitimate entertainment in two especially riveting sequences, the rest of the film falls flat. The second act stagnates and drags, and when he finally reaches his father in the third act, the pacing moves at lightning speed through what should have been the emotional payoff to the story, leaving us with a bland conclusion to a pretentious, bloated tale.
Despite some of its more impressive qualities, I would not recommend this film. All I can do is point you in the direction of some other movies that could satisfy whatever urge you are hoping to get out of this. If you want to see a great film by director James Gray, watch 2016’s “The Lost City of Z.” The film stars Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson in a historical epic about British explorers searching for a fabled civilization in the Amazon rainforest.
If you are looking for a great recent performance by Brad Pitt, watch Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” from this summer. While that film isn’t Tarantino’s best, Pitt delivers one of the best performances of his career and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Finally, if you just want to see a great movie about space, the aforementioned “Return of the Jedi” (or any of the films in the original “Star Wars” trilogy for that matter) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” offer lighthearted fun while dealing with interesting emotional subject matter. For a more serious tale of space travel, check out “Interstellar” or “2001,” both among the all-time greatest sci-fi films (if not the greatest films in general), as well as “The Martian,” “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”
Films about space travel are becoming increasingly common as the available technology to tell such stories has been improving. Just like any genre, there are going to be masterpieces and, as in this case, duds.
Rating: 2.5/ 5 stars
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @adastramovie Instagram.
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.