After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to reverse Thanos' actions and restore balance to the universe.
Robert Downey Jr.,
A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown's fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.
Despite some utterly absurd diversions (chase scene! horror scene! shoot-out scene!), this is a decent science-fiction narrative
A short while ago, the mesmerising Aniara (2018) pondered the insignificance of mankind when considered against the infinity of space and time. An esoteric science-fiction film in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solyaris (1972), it attempted to convey the universe's near-inconceivable vastness and the psychological ramifications of what it might feel like to be lost in such a vastness. This is the lineage into which Ad Astra wishes to step, but for me, it has more in common with the excellent Sunshine (2007) and the flawed but entertaining Interstellar (2014) - irrespective of its themes and tropes, it remains a mainstream Hollywood movie, wherein the demand for crowd-pleasing content often clashes with the desire for esotericism. In the case of Sunshine, this clash took the form of a genre shift into horror that Boyle doesn't fully pull off, and in the case of Interstellar, it's a predictable and unnecessary third-act twist. And so we have Ad Astra, where it's in the form of an overly convenient resolution and some of the most ludicrous narrative diversions I've seen since the abomination that was Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), diversions which seem to belong in a different film entirely, so tonally unrelated are they to everything else (space pirates! enraged simians! knife-fight/shoot-out!). Which is not to say that I disliked the film - I didn't; even if the narrative never manages to get beyond the "Heart of Darkness in space" template and the script relies far, far too heavily on a sub-Terrence Malick voiceover. The craft on display is exceptional and the story is thought-provoking and generally entertaining, with a terrific central performance, and some spectacular visuals (especially in the IMAX format). But it could have been so much better.
Set at an unspecified point in the near future, space travel has become routine, with the moon not unlike any major city on Earth. As the film begins, a series of energy surges originating near Neptune leave much of Earth and the moon without power. 29 years previously, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left Earth as the leader of the Lima Project, a mission aimed at establishing contact with alien civilisations. Travelling to the same region near Neptune from which the surges are now emanating, 16 years into the mission, all contact was lost. SpaceCom presumed the crew dead, but now they fear that Clifford may be behind the surges, and with an antimatter power core at his disposal, if he has become unhinged, he could create a chain reaction that would eradicate all life in the solar system (it's best not to dwell too much on the script's fundamental misrepresentation of how matter and antimatter interact). And so Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), Clifford's son, is tasked with travelling to a secure long-range communications base on Mars and recording a message for Clifford in the hopes he might respond. Of course, it's no spoiler to say that the mission doesn't exactly go smoothly.
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, and directed by Gray, Ad Astra wastes no time in tying us rigidly to Roy's perspective; it opens with a POV shot from inside his helmet, and the first words we hear are him speaking in voiceover. This sets up the narrative to come, as Roy remains the sole focaliser throughout - we learn things as he learns then and we never experience anything with which he is not directly involved. The fact that the film is set amongst the stars, but remains always tied to Roy's perceptions allows Gray to fashion a narrative that's both massive in scope yet emotionally intimate. He's aided immensely in this by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose gorgeous 35mm celluloid photography effortlessly captures the overwhelming scale of the milieu, but also frequently frames Pitt in tight close-ups.
Depending on your perspective, Pitt's portrayal of Roy is either one of the film's most laudable aspects or one of its most alienating. Initially played as emotionally closed off (he tells us in VO, "I've been trained to compartmentalise my emotions"), he's depicted as cold and distant. This stoicism, however, slowly starts to erode as his mission begins to go wrong, although there are a few early hints that all is not well - for example, his fixation on the breakup of his marriage to Eve (a thankless and largely wordless performance by a blink-and-you-miss-her Liv Tyler), or his observation of the crew of the Cepheus (which takes him from the moon to Mars), "they seem at ease with themselves. What must that be like?". His performance is such that one viewer might praise it for shunning emotional grandstanding even as another might criticise it as too taciturn. Personally, I think it's a terrifically modulated and minimalist performance in which he uses the lack of outward emotion to inform the character's emotional beats, relying on subtlety and nuanced gesture.
Thematically, on the most basic of levels, Ad Astra is the story of two men obsessed with their profession to the detriment of all else, a theme not unusual in Gray's filmography, receiving its most thorough exploration in Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) in Gray's masterpiece, The Lost City of Z (2016). Like most of Gray's films, Ad Astra is heavily androcentric, as are its most obvious narrative influences - Heart of Darkness (1899) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the reformulation of the narrative template, Roy is Charles Marlow (Benjamin Willard in the film), whilst Clifford is Kurtz, with the parallels obvious enough - a conflicted man sent to find a brilliant and pioneering man who has gone off-grid and who must be stopped, with the journey proving to be as much about travelling into the self as reaching a specific geographical destination.
An especially interesting theme is commercialism, which is introduced when Roy takes a Virgin America shuttle to the moon, whilst an exterior shot of a lunar base shows signs for, amongst others, Applebee's, DHL, and Subway. And since the moon is now so like Earth, it has become blighted by many of the same issues as Earth; crime, political division, materialism. Indeed, in VO, Roy laments how sickened Clifford would be with what the moon has become, pointing out it's simply a "re-creation of what we're running from on Earth".
However, for all these positives, there are some significant problems. Firstly, there are three utterly ridiculous pseudo-action scenes (a chase, a horror scene, and a knife-fight/shoot-out) which seem to have come from another movie entirely. Imagine if in 2001, instead of attempting to outwit HAL, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) had pulled out a shotgun and engaged in a running battle with androids controlled by the AI. Ridiculous? Of course. The three scenes in Ad Astra are only slightly less so. The third at least is the springboard for the second half of the movie, but it's still a monumentally silly way for Gray and Gross to advance the plot. The first two scenes, however, serve no such purpose - remove them from the film, and you'd have to change virtually nothing in the surrounding material - they're that disconnected and irrelevant. They lead nowhere, reveal nothing about the character or his psychology, and have no connection to the esoteric themes found elsewhere.
Another problem is the overly neat and anti-climatic finale. I'm led to believe this ending was a reshoot after test audiences responded poorly to the original (and far superior) ending - look it up online; the originally scripted ending made a lot more sense and was as thematically fascinating as it was existentially audacious.
The other big problem is the VO. I can count on one hand the number of times VO has been done well in film - there's the hard-boiled noir films of the 40s and 50s, the narration of Apocalypse Now, the work of Terrence Malick, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)...and, well, that's about it really. The VO is obviously intended to function in much the same way as Willard's in Apocalypse Now, providing some factual info, but also probing the soul of the character. However, the problem is that most of the time, the voice is describing something we can see plain as day on the screen. Pitt's performance is strong enough that the VO is unnecessary. You know the way the best films show rather than tell and the worst tell rather than show? Ad Astra does both, and it's hugely distracting. By the half-way stage, I was sick of Roy's cod-philosophical ramblings that aspire to portentousness, but end up coming across as someone trying and failing to imitate Malick.
With all that said, however, it's a testament to the story the film tells that despite these hurdles, I still enjoyed it. Pitt's performance is excellent, and what the storyline says about man's place in the universe is unexpected and fascinating. The original ending was infinitely superior, the VO is a huge misstep, and the action detours are ludicrous, but this is still an entertaining movie. It's not a patch on Lost City of Z, but the manner in which Gray juxtaposes an intimate tone with such massive themes is really impressive. In essence, Ad Astra is a fable about the importance of transient human connection, played out against the backdrop of the infinite, and despite some not insignificant problems, it's well worth checking out.
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