Films like “Ad Astra” remind me of why I appreciate the occasional slow burn. These types of films are a tricky endeavor, in which all the parts must be executed to perfection. The storytelling must be deliberate and contemplative, the actors must own every scene and convey complex emotions, and the visuals must be so beautiful to look at that we stop caring about the dialogue and possibly even the plot. The sounds must overtake our senses, and the music must be subtle and indicative. “Ad Astra” hits most of the marks, but doesn’t reach quite as high as its title suggests.
Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is the clear focus of the story. Pitt is undoubtedly one of the best actors of his generation. Coming off of a humorous, irreverent turn as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Pitt essentially plays Cliff’s polar opposite – Roy, a man laced in loneliness, despair, and complex father issues. His incredibly introspective performance is one of the best of the year, and could lead to another “Best Actor” nomination at the Oscars (his other being for “Moneyball”). The supporting cast make some nice appearances, but make no mistake, this is the Brad Pitt show, and he seems to carry the weight of the film with incredible ease.
The reason why I like the occasional slow burn is that I can contemplate the themes as the plot carries on. I can reflect on my own feelings and connect with the characters more clearly. Slower films tend to explore more poignant themes about humanity, but can also easily be swamped by pretentious profundity. The main character is on a hero’s journey, often leading to self-discovery. If ever there was a story in which the journey was more important than the destination, “Ad Astra” would be it. Many space films are like this, as the vastness and unknown nature of the universe puts our individuality and sense of purpose into perspective. “Ad Astra” explores many interesting themes that left me pondering for many hours after my viewing. It deals with the dilemma of man vs. mission, human connection, loneliness, obsession, and the father-son relationship. Its most profound question lies in what draws us away from home and into the dark vastness of space.
The director, James Gray, has said on multiple occasions that he wasn’t as interested in space as he was about how space makes us reflect on our humanity. “Ad Astra” is a character study, and the overarching theme is how our parents leave indelible marks on us throughout our lives, and should those marks be bad, can we deal with those burdens on a personal level? It’s a thought-provoking question, one that requires psychological evaluations deeper than the ones enforced by SpaceCom. This delve into the human psyche may escape or bore some viewers, but if you do appreciate these sort of cinematic examinations, “Ad Astra” is certainly worth a watch.
The plot takes a backseat, and there are clear inconsistencies in movie logic. “Ad Astra” gives off the clear impression of studio meddling, as there are action/thrill scenes that feel so out of place in a film with atypical priorities. The action scenes don’t lead to much beyond confusion for the audience, in regard to the film’s tone and the world in which it’s set. I wish Gray (or the studio, who knows) would have allowed more time to explore the various environments and the questions they posed. Commercialism on the moon is hardly surprising, but putting my cynicism aside, poses an interesting debate about corporate intentions and our consumerist society. “Ad Astra” seems like the kind of film that would have made for a better novel, or at least a miniseries. The use of voice over gives us a first person narrative perspective, and I actually appreciated knowing what was going on in Roy’s head as he is so introverted. The voice over at times also gives us greater context of the setting. I can understand though why some audience members have interpreted it as pandering or distrust, and it could frustrate me on future viewings. For Cliff McBride’s own problems, had SpaceCom simply made Emotional Intelligence a required reading, perhaps this whole thing could have been avoided.
Critics have insinuated that the film’s true overarching theme revolves around toxic masculinity; that this incredibly introspective and stoic man is somehow toxic because of his mannerisms. That wasn’t my takeaway from the film. Toxic relationships affect all sexes, and we’ve all likely dealt with them at one point or another. Roy is on the fringe as a human being – he has an unnatural ability to keep his heart rate low, and his callousness is a result of having never properly dealt with his abandonment issues that have gnawed at him for decades. He’s an emotionally complex person with a unique career, and is burdened with the pressure to live up to a father he never really knew. His character arc is immensely satisfying, and not once did I think, “yeah, this guy represents what’s wrong with masculinity.” It’s true that men are more likely to bury their emotions, and vulnerability plays a clear role in Roy’s redemption, but these concepts are things that we could all embrace more often.
So how does “Ad Astra” hold up to other recent sci-fi releases? Well, it’s not as technically impressive or suspenseful as “Gravity.” It’s not as complex as “Interstellar,” nor is it as cerebral as “Arrival” or “Annihilation.” Its narrative isn’t as strong as that of “The Martian,” and though the cinematography is impressive, it’s not immaculate like that of “Blade Runner: 2049.” Actually, I wasn’t all that blown away with the visuals from Hoyt van Hoytema. His color choices are always so drab, and some of the scenes were dark and fuzzy. This is a very moody film, and I’ll admit that Van Hoytema’s style does lend itself to that. The fact is, we’ve been spoiled with some excellent science fiction over the last half-decade, and unfortunately “Ad Astra” pulls the short straw, though it might be the most emotional out of all of them.