Movie Review: Brad Pitt's Ad Astra Paints a Cold and Lonely Future
Spoilers ahead for Ad Astra.
It appears as though, by some unspoken imperative, every lauded director must craft a movie about space at some point in their career. In recent years it was Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity, Christopher Nolan with Interstellar, and then Ridley Scott with the Martian. This year, James Gray, nominated several times for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, seeks to follow the same spacewalk with the Brad Pitt-starrer Ad Astra. The film is as ambitious as its title, looking to the stars to deliver a story that spans the solar system, but ultimately delivers middling results in the midst of stunning visuals.
Pitt is Major Roy McBride, the astronaut son of astronaut legend Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The opening scenes establish Roy as a peerless soldier whose blood pressure never rises even in the face of a near-death experience, setting him apart from ordinary humans and his pill-popping peers who take mood stabilizers in order to stay sane through the rigors of space. In a not-so-distant future where rich kids take commercial flights to a moon base for vacations eating Subway sandwiches, Gray builds a bleak, believable world where we continue to sweep the skies for signs of intelligent life.
The cinematography is stunning, masterfully lensed by Hoyte von Hoytema, who was also behind the camera for Nolan’s Interstellar and Dunkirk. The severe industrial design and architecture of Gray’s future is an antiseptic mix of Bauhaus and béton brut, creating a future where people have shed all pretense for art and color. Tellingly, one of the most colorful sequences is during the scenes on Mars where Roy is kept in a debriefing cell that projects Earth imagery against four blank walls, which are oddly wrinkled in several patches.
The future is cold, the loneliness of space and the future repeatedly hammered upon viewers through shots that cast subjects center frame engulfed in shadow. The forced chiaroscuro is a recurring motif, from the scenes on the dark side of the moon to the extremely odd pitch-black hallways of the Martian station to the blue-black emptiness of Neptune.
If Gray had trusted his visuals to convey the resounding message of loneliness and isolation, Ad Astra might have been a better film. Pitt is such an incredibly talented actor that his issues of having an absentee father worshipped by the world at large—the thread that runs through the entire film—were easily demonstrable through actions and, for the most part, actually were.
Criminally, Gray opts to clutter the film with excessive voice-overs of Roy’s thoughts that almost literally describe what’s happening onscreen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone presenting a slideshow and reading every bullet point on the slide. Gray tells and tells and tells rather than shows, which is a shame because there’s so much to show. We’re lifting the veil to see what’s beyond our solar system, after all. It’s a rookie storytelling mistake that’s horrifying to see from a director who has many times come so close to the Palme d’Or.
Another hurdle to connecting with the film is that Roy is so superhumanly self-controlled—explained as a consequence of dealing with losing his father at such a young age—that he’s incredibly difficult to relate to. Contrast this with the raw humanity of Matthew McConaughey's Cooper in Interstellar, whose complete emotional breakdown while watching video messages of his rapidly growing children is so real, so relatable that it anchors an inescapably lonely film to what is truly important.
The exact same message in so many different words is what Ad Astra aims to deliver, but Roy McBride’s feelings are so cauterized he feels almost robotic. Never mind that he embodies the kind of
Liv Tyler plays Roy’s estranged wife and there’s absolutely zero chemistry between them in the pitiful few scenes they have together, making the pair impossible to root for. Even the excessive melodrama and cheese of Michael Bay’s Armageddon is preferable to such a cold and distant relationship. Space is already cold and empty, the fact that Roy practically reflects the same void isn’t cinematic poetry, it’s needless torture. There’s even an unearned reconciliation that comes from nowhere and it feels cheap, rather than satisfying.
Tack on the fact that his father Clifford is a psychological conundrum by himself, a scientist tasked to find signs of intelligent life 29 years prior to the setting of the film, and you have an ironically alienating film. This may have been Gray’s point, in which case he succeeds in spades.
When he set out to make the film in 2016, Gray declared that he would make the “most realistic sci-fi film ever.” He’s since scaled back that claim, and rightly so because there are more than a few lapses in science that would’ve been easy to gloss over if the film had more heart. NASA reportedly lent footage for the film to use, and it feels wasted because there’s a montage of images taken in space toward the end that feels like a poor representation of how much wonderful data we’ve already gathered. It’s as though someone went through NASA’s free image and video library and chose the most unexciting, desaturated images.
There are also inexplicable lapses in the narrative that simply don’t make any sense whatsoever, with the inclusion of moon pirates and rapid space monkeys that do not in any way contribute to the overall arc of the story other than to build Roy up as a capable soldier who’s cool under pressure.
It’s infuriating because Gray spends so much effort establishing how Roy is so much unlike you and me that when he reveals that the ultimate payoff of the film is to focus back on humanity, you no longer care. “Why continue?” Roy asks himself in one of his countless inner monologues as he drifts in the vast emptiness of space near Neptune. You can’t answer why because Ad Astra never gives you enough reason to want to.