As the decade enters its final months, it’s worth noting that there has been a resurgence of space movies. Between hits like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian, everyone seems to have a space story to tell. But the three aforementioned movies each took a different approach. Alfonso Cuarón chose to tell Gravity as a disaster movie with minimal characters; Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar filled its nearly three hour run-time with the director’s knack for exposition and stunning visuals meant to be seen on the big screen; Ridley Scott, meanwhile, made The Martian a tale of survival and teamwork in one of the best blockbusters of the decade. Now, James Gray throws his hat into the ring with Ad Astra: a more cerebral and subdued space movie that has all the right ideas, but bogged down by a surprising lack of action.
Ad Astra follows Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, an astronaut who discovers that his dad may still be alive after disappearing on a mission to find life beyond Earth. His father is found near Neptune, where sudden surges of power are endangering life on Earth. McBride is then assigned a top secret mission to destroy the mission and take down his father. Along the way, he finds himself getting emotionally involved with the mission, breaking his normally cool demeanor and making him emotionally compromised in what is becoming more like a suicide mission.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it follows a similar story to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Aside from one being in space and the other in the jungle, the two leads in each go through spiritual journeys while on search and destroy missions. Apocalypse Now benefited from great performances alongside scattered action sequences that still hold up by today’s standards. I recently saw the final cut of Apocalypse Now in IMAX, so it’s still pretty fresh in my head.
Ad Astra, meanwhile, is more subdued in its approach. This results in a slower pace and emotional restraint from all of the actors involved. It works better for some people, such as Donald Sutherland who has made an entire career out of that restraint. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for Brad Pitt’s leading performance. The father-son relationship he has with Tommy Lee Jones never felt real. It’s the movie’s fatal flaw because this relationship is supposed to be the heart of Ad Astra.
James Gray’s direction, on the other hand, is very polished, and while it never reaches the heights of Nolan or Cuaron’s works in the genre, it’s still a nice looking film. It also helps that cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema worked on Interstellar. The effects are par-for-the-course in this movie. They’re not bad, but nothing really stood out to me as spectacular except for a moon rover chase and a satellite explosion in the first half, which was mostly given away in the trailers anyway.
If you do plan on seeing Ad Astra, see it like you would’ve seen Gravity or Interstellar: on the best screen with the best sound system. Aside from impressive technical aspects, Ad Astra falls short of earlier films that set the science fiction bar so high. This is due in part to its familiar story and themes slowed down to a glacial pace that makes it feel longer than its two hour runtime. If cerebral sci-fi is what you’re looking for at the movies, you can do worse than this movie. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.
Ad Astra is now in theaters worldwide.