Sunday 29 August 2021

Movie Review: Ad Astra (2019)

A space adventure, Ad Astra mixes a father-son quest with a larger search-for-the-meaning-of-life, but fumbles both the science and the fiction.

In the near future, Earth is subjected to massive unexplained electrical storms. Perpetually calm and collected astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) barely survives a fall back to earth from the international antenna station. He is then recruited for a secret mission to travel to Mars and send a message to his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary but missing astronaut.

A generation earlier Clifford commanded the Lima Project on a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system to seek evidence of intelligent life. But he was believed dead 16 years ago when contact was lost with Lima near Neptune. Now he is presumed alive and responsible for the electrical storms. Roy arrives to Mars and sends the message to his father, but when he is prevented from reading the response, he embarks on an unsanctioned mission on the spaceship Cepheus to Neptune.

Directed and co-written by James Gray, Ad Astra looks beautiful but is heavily laden with soulful narration, psychology and philosophy, and all of it ultimately drifts towards frustrating purposelessness. Despite a suitably subdued Brad Pitt performance, the narrative disintegrates early, with fragments of plot points and characters introduced and abandoned to no effect.

The movie is caught in dissonance of its own making, mixing a human-scaled sense of downbeat realism with ridiculous cliffhanger moments. A rover chase on the surface of the moon may be relatively unique, but represents a lot of what is wrong with the script. Apparently pirates are roaming the moon, but their intentions are never discussed. Later Roy tangles with angry monkeys on an abandoned spacecraft, makes use of a water-filled underground pipe system on Mars, secretly clambers into a rocket at take-off through the engine compartment, uses a hatch as a makeshift shield against space debris to float through space, and perfectly times a nuclear explosion to propel his spacecraft to safety. None of these supposed highlights pass the logic test or meaningfully enhance the story.

The characters do not fare any better. Donald Sutherland is prominent early on as a sort of mission minder, but is unceremoniously dropped. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler briefly float in and out of Roy's adventure. And Tommy Lee Jones bites into the Marlon Brando role from Apocalypse Now, but never gets to explain quite why  - or how - he was trying to destroy Earth all the way from Neptune.

At the heart of Roy's trip is a search to better understand his father. Ignoring the space setting and all the hardware, Ad Astra becomes a simple story of one man coming to terms with his father's depression and sense of personal failure. Even this narrative bumps against a truncated and unsatisfactory resolution. There may be many reasons to hijack a future space program, but resolving daddy issues should not be one of them.

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