Ad Astra (2019)

There all sorts of weirdly exciting things going on in Ad Astra, like space monkeys, lunar buggy pirates, and electromagnetic pulses from Neptune that threaten to destroy life on Earth (and maybe in the solar system) as we know it. Commuter flights to the Moon! Humans born on Mars! Secret rocket bases on the dark side of the Moon! Yeah, see? I’m intrigued! I love a good space story as much as anybody else!

But Ad Astra, beyond being full of interesting ideas and even better cinematography (it looks fantastic), is a moody snoozer of a naval-gazing sci-fi film that never convinced me that it was as smart as it thinks it is.

Our Rating

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Director: James Gray

Actors: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Liv Tyler, Donny Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton

Year: 2019

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Country: China / Brazil / USA

There is an outstanding opening sequence that has astronaut/space-antenna worker Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) tumbling ass-over-teakettle from tens of thousands of feet above the earth as the antenna explodes in a catastrophic accident. Turns out the antenna wasn’t the only thing that suddenly failed; mysterious pulses from outer space have wreaked havoc across the globe, and threaten to continue. And here’s the thing: Roy’s long-gone astronaut-hero father (Tommy Lee Jones), missing on a mission to Neptune and presumed dead for over a dozen years, is the government’s number one suspect of somehow being the source of this celestial havoc. And guess what? Only one person can stop him: His son!

Well, OK. It seems that there probably would have been some other options, but as the screenplay start to take its many jumps of common sense, you squint your eyes and follow along. Obstacles are thrown in the way (many have absolutely no impact on the story and are never mentioned again), and we see that very stolid Roy slowly starts to crack as he nears the goal of intercepting his father near Neptune. Much is made of Roy’s steadiness, unflappability, and low heart rate. But Pitt almost flatlines it. We are supposed to get peeks of Roy’s depth with his voice-overs and psychological check-ins with a computer, but his monologues are so stagey and monotone that he just comes across as an unreachable, flat character.

I couldn’t help but think there was a deeper, richer world in the original story that must have been hacked apart by editors before making it to the screen. About a third the way into the film, I decide to just roll with it and at least try to enjoy the look and sound of the film, rather than try to add a deeper meaning to its poorly developed fragments. Because I can unequivocally say that the film is gorgeous and the score is mesmerizing and beautiful. Space never looked so good or sounded so haunting.

As I read the overwhelmingly positive early reviews for Ad Astra, I realized that this is the kind of movie that a guy would try to mansplain to me. [Just like that time where a co-worker talked at me for an hour explaining how Prometheuswas actually a smart, awesome movie that only seemed like it sucked (as he then proceeded to try to steer me to read his extensive blog post about the matter).] I argue that if a movie seems shallow, well, it probably is. As a viewer, you shouldn’t have to dig for something that may not actually be there. If, indeed, Ad Astra was as deep as it pretended to be, then the filmmakers dropped the ball. Don’t put your viewers to sleep before they get your message.


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