An immensely well-crafted hero’s tale through space that explores existential ideas at a deliberate pace, but its final landing is not entirely convincing.
Dir. James Gray
2019 | USA | Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi | 123 mins | 2.39:1 | English
PG13 (passed clean) for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
Plot: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres)
Like most sci-fi pictures with a fair amount of budget and heady ambition, Ad Astra is cerebral, technically-accomplished and at times awe-inspiring. But it also has problems with landing its craft, however sophisticated it is.
Without spoiling anything, what I can ambiguously say is that the film takes us on a journey with Brad Pitt (or Sad Brad as aptly described by my Singapore Film Society colleagues on his performance) whose character, Roy McBride, goes to where no one has traversed before.
Well, except for his father, Clifford McBride, the legendary hero who may or may not be alive after his space exploits to find intelligent life left him faraway near the planet Neptune, seemingly with all contact lost.
Roy ‘lost’ his father to his space ambition nearly two decades ago, but when the chance comes to make a space trip in hopes of preventing planetary obliteration (you see, Earth has been bombarded by frequent catastrophic electric storms), he is forced to face his burdensome past and reflect on his own personal ambition.
The movie was scheduled for release in May 2019, but its Cannes Film Festival premiere was cancelled and there had been rumors that it was due to the Fox-Disney merger.
Which is why much of the film is punctuated by scenes of Roy doing computerised psychological evaluations that determine if he is mentally-stable enough to continue on with the quest.
James Gray, the remarkable director of the utterly underrated The Lost City of Z (2016)—which is also about exploration but of a different nature—handles Ad Astra like a pro. His vision is strong and several set-pieces are breathtaking to experience, including an unorthodox vehicle chase on the Moon.
It is, however, deliberately-paced, and will probably be a bore for audiences not used to slow-burning existential sci-fi, though there are far more action and thrills here than, say, Kubrick or Tarkovsky would have obliged. However, if you are in the mood, you will be rewarded with a contemplative Hero’s journey-type film, backed by a quietly-intense performance by Pitt.
Despite being immensely well-crafted, Ad Astra’s final landing is not entirely convincing. It forgoes mystery and ambiguity for a more clear-headed epilogue, which is akin to succumbing to Hollywood conventions. It is not a bad thing, but it just feels like an uncharacteristic step backwards for a generally progressive, if even enigmatic film.