Let’s Talk About: Ad Astra

Let’s Talk About: Ad Astra
November 4, 2019 Souvarine

Ad Astra is a sci-fi epic set in the near future. It stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, an astronaut who voyages to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished sixteen years earlier and is now thought to be responsible for a series of catastrophic energy surges on Earth. Our editors share their reactions.

 

Jane:

I can’t remember the last time I thought a film was so theoretically interesting and so painfully misjudged in execution.

 

Tom:

I thought it was a really weird film. It felt like several good ideas for several different films, jostling for the same 120 minutes. As a sci-fi fan, I enjoyed the production quality, nods towards plausibility in places (the grotesque price inflation of the in-flight conveniences, for example!) and majestic visuals. But this felt like a film that didn’t know what it was trying to be.

 

What was the point of the monkey bit? And the moon pirates? There’s no plot or character reason for them at all. And they don’t warrant inclusion on their own artistic merit. The monkey sequence was technically good — the tension was built well, the reveal was genuinely shocking, and the monkeys were portrayed threateningly. But tonally, the sequence being there at all didn’t feel right. 

 

There’s a plausibility angle too. The idea that, in the vastness of space, a ship on a finely-calibrated journey to Mars carrying a VIP on an urgent mission might be close enough to a distress call to just ‘pop over’ seems off. 

Jane:

Perhaps the action scenes were to trick the action fans into coming too? There’s been some suggestion that they were filmed by second unit director Dan Bradley during reshoots, so they may not have been part of the original vision for the movie.

 

I really wanted to be moved by the film but couldn’t. It frustrated me. I want more films about masculinity and fatherhood and the impossible expectations of stoicism and ‘pragmatism’ imposed on men, and I don’t feel good putting one down when it’s been made. But I just couldn’t connect to Roy.

 

The performance almost felt like a parody of what Ryan Gosling was doing in First Man. He was very emotionally packed down in that film but you always knew what he was really feeling. Whereas Brad Pitt’s Roy is a blank surface, except when his emotions break through from nowhere and then vanish again. Which sounds like it could be interesting! But in this case, it wasn’t.

 

Tom:

Yes, agreed. In spite of his moments of heroism, Roy did seem a bit whiny and useless. I don’t think that Brad Pitt was really right for the part. He does suave very well, but I’m not sure about tender, bruised, or confused. Although I did quite like the diary entry narration — it gave the whole thing a touch of noir.

 

Gosling does expressionless emotion really well though. His face is geared up for it — he can just stare at a wall and radiate strong feelings.

 

Jane:

For me, hearing Roy constantly tell the audience what he was really thinking and feeling undercut all of that surface-level emotional constipation; the voiceover and the physical traits felt like they belonged to different characters. I think I could have liked the voiceover more with a different, more layered lead performance.

 

I also felt that the ending was weak. If the film had ended ten minutes sooner I would have felt much more kindly disposed towards it. 

 

Tom:

I agree. It tried for a happy ending and was left with bathos. Leaving it on a note of uncertainty would have been much stronger. 

 

I also disliked the moral takeaway. It seemed to be saying ‘old white men should stop banging on about space and finding extraterrestrial life, and start thinking about important things like their families’, which seems a bit narrow-minded. I don’t see how being a tolerable husband and father is incompatible with curiosity about the universe.

Jane:

Well, quite. I think the intended moral was probably more like ‘If we are alone in the universe and nobody is coming to save us, we should act accordingly’, and that’s not something I have a problem with (I do think it’s interesting that in this kind of film, whether we are alone in the universe because there is no extraterrestrial life or no God is an essentially interchangeable point). But if that’s the case, surely whether we all band together to save the planet is more important than whether Brad Pitt reconnects with his ex-wife.

 

Was there anything you really liked about the film? This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I genuinely admired the colour palette; the gradual shift from calm greys, blues, and greens in the opening to the angry reds and oranges of locations in the third act works really well.

 

Tom:

I did really enjoy the sequence in which Roy travels to Neptune. Space is maddeningly lonely and human life seems impossibly fragile in it, and I feel the film nailed that in that latter third. 

 

I also enjoyed the visuals. I think the film was shot really well, and conveyed the scale and majesty of the Solar System.

 

Ultimately though, for me, it’s just trying to do too many things to be a triumph. It’s trying to be an action film, or at least appeal to action fans. It’s trying to leave us with a moral takeaway that feels muddled. It’s trying to elicit sympathy for characters it barely introduces — like the elderly minder who has to tap out due to heart trouble. As a film, it would have been better, tighter and more coherent were it to pursue one of these threads. If it was a tight, claustrophobic account of one astronaut flying out to visit his possibly-dead father, it could have been great. I’d happily watch two hours of a 2001-esque lonely trip through space to see a mad dad. If it was an action film about the piracy on a near-future Moon, it could have been great. If it was a twisty conspiracy thriller, it could have been great. Ultimately, one film isn’t enough to do justice to all the films this was trying to be. 

 

Jane:

I think it’s worth noting that plenty of people whose opinions I respect did really like and emotionally connect with the film. I do think it’s flawed, but I’m happy that they got things out of it that I didn’t.

 

By Jane Clewett and Tom Grundy