I was interested seeing some of the responses to James Gray’s ” Ad Astra”, where reviewers were throwing around phrases like “masterpiece”, “dazzling”, “hypnotic and philosophical space epic” with “(Brad) Pitt delivering an Oscar worthy performance”.
For me, this is pushing it a bit.
“Ad Astra” is actually pretty entertaining; it’s an action packed sci-fi which, had it been made in the 1980s, would have starred Arnie Schwarzenegger and run alongside such classics as “The 6th Day” and “Total Recall”.
This is a solid piece of fun which will easily find itself in the 8:30 Saturday night movie rotations on free to air tv, and I enjoyed it, but it’s far from a masterpiece, and what’s more, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“Ad Astra” is set in the near future, where space travel has been commercialised to the extent that anybody can fly to the moon for a vacation and purchase a blanket on the trip for $125. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has been recruited to investigate a string of strange power surges which have threatened all life in the solar system and is sent on a mission to Mars to investigate. The thing is, Roy is the son of Major Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who went missing some 16 years earlier, and Roy soon discovers that his father may be alive after all and the one behind the power surges. And so Roy sets off on a journey to save the solar system, find his lost father and find himself in the process.
If this sounds cheesy at all, that’s because it undeniably is. The premise is pretty stock standard for a sci-fi, and in a way I did enjoy the fact that the script is so unapologetically sappy and without subtlety, because it fits in nicely with the Arnie-esque actions from the 80s, although I don’t think this was on purpose. If the director was in fact aiming for something profound and meaningful, he missed the mark completely. The entire film is punctured by unnecessary and clunky narration from Pitt, featuring such tear jerkers as “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him”. There’s never a moment where the audience has to think for itself, because any subtle glance or expression is accompanied by a wanky and sombre description of it. Brad Pitt himself is a pretty decent actor I think, and he’s certainly not bad in this, but like I said before, this film would have worked just as well with Arnie.
The film itself isn’t actually driven by the fact that it’s set in space; this could have been set in the jungle or the desert and would have worked just fine. It does allow for some pretty impressive cinematography and cool set pieces though, and I appreciated that they didn’t try and explain the science behind space travel; there are Starbucks’ on the moon, the physics doesn’t really interest me anymore.
Where the film does well is when it allows for the fun of the sci fi genre to run its own course. It’s fun seeing what the moon looks like with airports and hotels, and when space pirates started shooting at Brad Pitt and his crew from their dune buggies, I could hear ten year old Jocko bouncing around in my head saying that he wanted to be a space pirate too. I think they could have gone a bit further with all of this though; the pensive and contemplative second half of the film, (especially Pitt’s scenes with Tommy Lee Jones) aren’t handled terribly well and feel somewhat anticlimactic considering we’d just travelled across the entire galaxy to get there.
The themes of identity and finding one’s path through life have certainly produced powerful films in the past, but Ad Astra just isn’t one of them. This is a fun sci-fi which could have been a whole lot better if it had simply embraced that and not tried to make itself into something that it just wasn’t.
By Jock Lehman