As a casual cinema goer, I am not often immediately drawn to the kind of films that just immediately scream Oscar bait. This does not mean that I have not seen any ever of course, but I do question how enjoyable the experience will be if its been lauded by critics and panned by average viewers. So to say that I was not interested in seeing Ad Astra is something of an understatement, and yet I have seen it. Given the chance to see the film in 4DX made me swallow my pride and embark on the cosmic journey, a journey that went on for eternity, a journey that I wish I had never travelled to begin with.
Directed by James Gray and starring a wisened-looking Brad Pitt, Ad Astra takes us to the near future, where space travel is still slow but also more common. In this future, the solar system is under threat by a strange anti-matter surge which is interfering with the various off-world human colonies. Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a man who finds himself having to search for his missing father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) on the outskirts of our solar system, in hopes of stopping the surge from destroying everything the human race has accomplished. A journey that takes him from Earth, to the Moon, Mars and finally to Neptune. A journey paved with tragedy and horrific obstacles. And honestly this synopsis is already sounding better than what the actual films delivers.
When watching this film I found myself being reminded of other films that had also gone on to receive Oscar praise, such as Gravity, Arrival and even Dunkirk. Like those films, this one delights in its slow-burning nature, but unlike the others there feels like there is no real pay off for the two hours of boredom it gives you. Whereas Gravity was the story of one woman’s symbolic rebirth and Arrival was the story of the human race and its’ relationship to time and language, Ad Astra seems to be under the impression that it is a film about loss – or, more specifically, the loss of a parent. But there is no indication or evidence given that shows Pitt and Jones having a loving and devoted father-son relationship. We see a brief glimpse at baby Pitt’s childhood, but nothing of substance to make us care about the primary theme. Jones’s character literally exclaims his hatred for Pitt and his mother at the climax of the film, making me glad to see him sucked into the icy abyss of space. For all the hate it receives, Gravity took a simple premise and amped up the tension by setting it in space. Ad Astra also does this but also convolutes the story with a military mission to the reaches of the star system, space pirates and underground cities on Mars – elements that seem outlandish and melodramatic in the film’s one-step-away future aesthetic. The point I’m making is that after two hours of slow space travel, the story ends with Pitt having apparently accepted the loss of his father, a loss that he himself caused and one that isn’t truly felt by the camera or audience.
Roy McBride himself also suffers from being a poorly constructed and tiresome character, in many ways embodying everything that we would expect from a typical ‘Gary Stu’. He is a master of space, he’s rugged and good-looking, he has a dark past but also a sensitive side and he has daddy issues. These are the basic elements that make up almost 99.9% of any poorly-written protagonist, something that McBride exemplifies beautifully. In fact McBride is such a space whizkid that he inadvertently kills several people without care or emotion and without any narrative repercussion. By the end of the film he’s safe and back in love with a criminally under-used Liv Tyler and not in jail for breaking the law and angering the Mars people. Pitt is on full-form here, he gives a deep and layered performance. But having just seen him in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (a film I much preferred) its almost like watching a charismatic cow-boy turn transform into a traumatised war-veteran. I would even argue that Pitt was more enjoyable in the Tarantino flick because that character was flawed and all-around a disgusting human being, and therefore far more relatable in one sense and more energetic to watch. But I’m sure this performance will be enough to either bag an Oscar nom, or maybe even a win.
The film itself is beautiful to look at, Gray’s sweeping shots of space call to mind iconic sci-fi flicks such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. There is a divine wonder in how realistically this film brings the unexplored reaches of our galaxy to life. The mood-changing colour palettes and other planet setting are also engaging, but again somewhat fantastical when compared to the rest of the film. There are also strange bursts of violence and gore in this film that jar greatly with the slow pace and drama of the story being told, as if the screenwriter could see what a boring shlock this film would be, so decided to jazz it up with some Ridley Scott-like sci-fi horror.
Overall I disagree with some critics that this film will become a timeless classic, seeing as timeless classics tend to have to be enjoyed by some percentage of the audience. But from what I’ve seen there aren’t many cinema goers who are adding this film to their ‘watch again’ list. In the end this film is one that believes it can garner praise and success through slow meandering shots and one man’s journey across space, and not through story or theme.