Spoilers commencing countdown, engines on.
I wanted and didn’t wanted to see this movie. I thought this movie would have a lot of what I wanted. It would look great, it would sound great, it would have long, lingering shots of realistically depicted spaceships turning around in the sun. And I admit, I ended up going to the theatre to have the full experience. But I also knew what it would be missing. It’s still a movie I don’t regret watching because there’s really very scarce of them around.
Ad Astra was directed by James Gray, who co-wrote it with Ethan Gross. Now here’s where I have to be literal. It’s a movie that takes place in space. A lot of movies do, and they depict space and the exploration of space a little further than any space program has. That is a good thing, and I loved this movie’s depiction of the future achievements of space programs. The movie starts by telling us it takes place in the future with a line of text. A statement that seems unnecessary as we will see for ourselves in a few, but I guess we need to know it before the opening screen reveals it. Then it goes forth to add more unnecessary exposition through text that already irked me, but I was willing to put it behind me.
I am not fan of the background narration either, but I forgave that as well. I forgave it all because I was seeing astronauts, such as Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) in the eternal struggle between his work / passion and his wife Eve (Liv Tyler). There’s a scene at the start in which Roy is reciting his mantra about not letting unimportant things get in the way of his work where Eve walks out on him. The camera never focuses as she walks by, obviously showing us that Eve was never important to him.
The movie is not about space exploration. At some point it seems we’re going for the human angle since Roy is asked to send a message to the LIMA Project, a project that was run by his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who was thought to be deceased. The entire world is suffering this anomalies they call “surges” that cripple computers and cause power outages. The secret is they’re coming from the LIMA Project which is stationed near Neptune.
Roy has been establish as an astronaut who never loses his cool, even when faced with danger head on – and that is shown in the movie to great extent. Then after traveling to Mars, facing more danger and start reading a pre-redacted message to his father, he breaks protocol the second time and sends a message of his own. Since it was explicitly and extensively shown that Roy can face danger without even getting a quick heart rate, I did expect that to be a big thing later on but we’re barely in the middle of the film. Although we’ve had danger before, this scene lacks any gravitas for him to have an emotional breakthrough.
To be honest I was sure he’d experience that once he met his father again, because in case you haven’t guessed it already, that was going to happen at some point. However the way the movie decides to raise the stakes is rather strange. The ship that brought Roy to Mars is requisitioned to be sent to Neptune with a nuclear device. This is complete overkill. “Strange anomalies detected near Neptune” should have been sufficient. No need for Roy to be the unlikely hero here. Same goes for the unnecessary mayday in space where they run into killer baboons loose inside a ship.
The tone inconsistencies do bring the movie down a few notches. It makes me think that it was supposed to be a more contemplative, more grandiose thing and suddenly this whole Armageddon-y extra story elements were brought in. The other problem is with literal contradictions. When Roy first boards the ship to Mars, his background narration tells us these are long-haulers, technicians, non-military people. Then the ship AND crew get tasked with delivering a nuclear device into a hostile situation. I think even with this story element, the solution was clear: have Roy’s pulse quicken but only for a brief period to show us that his father can still get to him and then have him in control of the mission to go find his father. No need for end-of-the-world theatrics.
Slightly recommended because the visuals are impressive and reminiscent of great science-fiction films. The story unnecessarily turns and twists for no reason. I think it’s easily fixable, but I guess this was the way the filmmakers/studio wanted to go. I still think the visuals and Brad Pitt carry the movie a longer way than expected, but I didn’t really care for Tommy Lee Jones. It’s hard to pinpoint if the story ends up just being about a father and son or we’re expected to see something else. Don’t expect any revelation about the universe or reality to come up. Space is mostly kept in the background. Too bad, because it makes for a beautiful sight.
That will do for now.