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Ad Astra (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Ad Astra

AD ASTRA (2019)

Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne, Jamie Kennedy, Anne McDaniels, Halszka Kuza, Kayla Adams, Kimmy Shields, Sean Blakemore, Ravi Kapoor and Daniel Sauli.

Screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross.

Directed by James Gray.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13.

All too often, modern science fiction movies seem to be very similar, at least superficially – spectacularly beautiful effects at the service of deadly downbeat, and honestly often rather dull, stories.

Take Ad Astra. Please.

It is gorgeously mounted, but it is cold and passionless, and has way too many sections that move at a glacial pace. Even the supposed action scenes feel distant and distracted. (And occasionally outright ridiculous – killer space baboons? Really???)

Not only is the hero – an astronaut played by Brad Pitt – completely deadened and cut off from everything going on around him, there is only one character in the whole film who connects as a real, vital human being, someone who has passion and spark. That character, an older military man played by Donald Sutherland, is written out of the action in the first 20 minutes or so.

Ad Astra is simply amazing looking, but it’s eventually an empty spectacle, a triumph of style over substance. It wants you to believe that it is oh so deep and vitally important, but essentially, it’s just another story of a man trying to deal with the large shadow of his overbearing father.

Just because it takes place in space doesn’t make the idea any fresher.

It wants to be an Oedipal variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but it falls far short of the Conrad novella and Oedipus Rex, for that matter.

Pitt’s Roy McBride has been dealing with all his life with the ghost of his famous astronaut father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). 27 years after dad disappeared during a mission to Neptune gone horribly wrong, Roy is told that there is reason to believe that dad is still alive. They want to use the son to lure the dad to return to civilization, which seems like a flawed plan since they had been estranged even before dad became a missing person.

Even though dad has been gone from his life for over a generation, Roy is still a throbbing open wound when it comes to his relationship with his father, who was mean and abusive. Roy has become the best astronaut he can be because he must live up to his father’s legacy – and also the least feeling astronaut he can be. He is known in the space program for never letting his pulse rate go above 80 – which is a good skill in an emergency, but not so good in life in general.

Roy has driven his wife (played by Liv Tyler) away, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that she was the one thing in the world that could raise any feelings in the guy.

However, when he takes on the new mission, Roy starts to lose his shit. All these years later, his dad has such a large sway over him that even the possibility that he is alive makes Roy become unmoored. He starts the long trip to a space station to try to contact his father, experiencing space adventures that are sometimes exciting, sometimes stupid. (Again…, killer space baboons!). Also, honestly, people fighting in zero gravity are kind of ridiculous looking. And it happens more than once in Ad Astra.

It all moves slowly through space and time, to the point that the audience is squirming in their seats. By the time you hit the almost inevitable possibility of a father and son reunion, the film had pretty much lost most of us.

As I said before, most of the characters of Ad Astra appear to be emotionally deadened, like they are all on full body Novocain. Sadly, so does the movie.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: September 20, 2019.

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