20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises/Bona Film Group/New Regency/Plan B Entertainment/RT Features/Keep Your Head Productions/MadRiver Pictures
Directed by James Gray
Produced by Brad Pitt/Dede Gardener/Jeremy Kleiner/James Gray/Anthony Katagas/Rodrigo Teixeira/Arnon Milchan
Written by James Gray/Ethan Gross
Music by Max Richter
Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema
Edited by John Axelrod/Lee Haugen
Y’know, considering the obsession the United States Space Command has with the psychological and emotional health of their astronauts and the regularity they make Major Roy McBride take psych evaluations, somebody would have tumbled to the fact that his deep-rooted daddy issues make him the last person they should have sent to find his father. A man who they suspect has gone batshit insane and is trying to destroy the Earth by means of anti-matter-based power surges from Neptune.
AD ASTRA has been described as being a mash-up of “Apocalypse Now” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, AD ASTRA has none of the wonder of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the delirious grindhouse madness of “Apocalypse Now.” It’s very much a space exploration movie for our times, though. It’s cynical and full of despair. There is no wonder in exploring space for the characters in this movie. Space is depressingly hostile and nobody really seems to be excited or happy to be doing what they’re doing. Bases on The Moon and Mars look more like strip malls rather than institutions serving as the jumping off point to explore the infinite. AD ASTRA very strongly puts forth the notion that those who make going into the emptiness and isolation of outer space their life’s work is because of the emptiness and isolation inside of them, for whatever reason caused it.
In the case of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) his isolation and emotional disconnection from his wife (Liv Tyler) is because of his father, Dr. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) the most decorated and famous astronaut in history. The elder McBride commanded The Lima Project, an attempt to communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The Lima Project went out to Neptune for reasons that are still murky to me (among many other things about this movie that are similarly murky) and it is from there that energy surges created by anti-matter are flooding the Solar System, wreaking havoc on Earth. The U.S. Space Command sends Roy out to find his father under the supervision of the elder McBride’s best friend and colleague Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). The thinking is that the personal connection between father and son will be enough to get McBride to stop his cosmic foolishness. Roy’s odyssey takes him to The Moon, then Mars and finally to Neptune where both he and his father will confront their mutual destiny and resolve their relationship.
And that’s basically what the daggone movie is about; a guy resolving his issues with his father wrapped up in a space exploration movie. Not that I have a problem with a movie about a guy resolving his issues with his father. I don’t think there’s a man alive who at one time or another hasn’t had issues with his father so it’s a valid theme to explore in any genre. But don’t give me a movie where the fate of the human race is at stake and then promptly forget about it. There’s never any sense that the world is any danger at all as outside of a couple of news broadcasts there’s no real scenes of disaster that made me believe that the world was in trouble. And in fact, once Roy leaves Mars, the energy pulses are rarely mentioned at all and are treated almost as an afterthought.
And as I said earlier, there’s no joy or wonder or grandeur for these characters in the exploration of space. Roy hitches a ride to Mars and the crew gleefully takes happy pills to alleviate their boredom. The Mars base has feral dogs roaming the trash littered hallways. Bureaucrats and business people appear to be in charge of everything in this bleak future. And the whole thing seemed to me to be one long shaggy dog story that has the message that there’s no reason for us to go into space because all we’ll do is take our shit with us and screw up the rest of the universe same as we’ve screwed up the Earth.
Which is a shame because Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland do their damnedest to sell this story and they’re always worth watching. But if you’ve seen “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” then you’ve seen the best Brad Pitt performance of the year. The considerable talents of Ruth Negga, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Liv Tyler are wasted here and I only hope they got paid well. The flaws of the movie absolutely do not lie with the actors but with the script.
What else? There’s a couple scenes of violence and action, including a chase scene on The Moon with lunar rovers and laser beam guns (I shit thee not) and a rescue mission involving baboons that make absolutely no sense and I’m convinced that they’re in there because the screenwriters themselves were not confident they had a sufficiently compelling or interesting story to tell and had to put in something to keep the audience awake. And indeed, in the showing Patricia and I attended I heard at least three or four people snoring. And when the end credits rolled, Patricia heard a guy leaving the theater as fast as he could saying to his friend; “This will be on Netflix in a week.” And that’s my recommendation for AD ASTRA: wait for it to show up on Netflix.