The official synopsis for Ad Astra goes something like this: An astronaut journeys across the solar system to find his father, a scientist gone rogue in his attempts to find the truth in space.
Now, I’m usually not a big fan of the space drama. I missed out on Gravity and Interstellar. I didn’t watch The Martian and I skipped First Man. But I think Ad Astra is a solid attempt at doing sci-fi and trying to insert itself as a stripped-down version of the space exploration story in an age of superhero films and franchises.
An Old Tale in a New Setting
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut following in the footsteps of his father, scientist H. Clifford McBride played by Tommy Lee Jones. However, a significant event stemming from the furthest reaches of the solar system threatens life on Earth, and the source of it is seemingly from Roy’s long lost father. And so Roy must travel to the outer limits of space to undo what his father had done that threatens us all.
We’re quite familiar with this tale already. A father figure leaves his son behind, and the son attempts to reach out to the forlorn figure. What happens after that is a realization that the folks we oft look up to are no more men than we are. Flawed. Scared. Fragile. That the icons we saw them as were larger than our expectations. See Star Wars.
Our heroes sometimes make the wrong decisions to come to such status. And the truth of what they are is hidden behind so much facade and hype that we oft forget that the shortcomings of man also affect them in their pursuits just as much as they do in ours.
Director James Gray took inspiration from this film from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Instead of a voyage along the Congo River, this one takes place through our solar system. And instead of a voyager fascinated with the blank spaces on a map of Africa, it’s a scientist searching the vastness of space to uncover secrets of worlds we’ve only seen through the telescope.
The Adventures Through Space
The last film I saw that had somewhat of a realistic space experience was Armageddon in 1998. Needless to say, the space experience in film has evolved since then.
I was new to this surreal feeling the film gives of weightlessness and complete loss of control. There is a tension built through Pitt’s character slowly moving through Zero-Gs just to press a button or to unlock a latch. This compliments the intensity at moments where there is a complete loss of control over his environment, where the audience is sent reeling along with the character through the endless void, until some random object running its orbital course makes impact with him, and in turn, us.
I say that as experiences through the 4DX labs served to enhance everything that was happening on screen. The immersive experience of weightlessness and those moments of tension coupled with the more extremely violent shakes as the throes of space travel and matter colliding with matter also jolt our seats. We feel the blast of the rockets and the smokey pillars that fill the theater.
Seemingly Disconnected Dialogue
The only issues seemed to be with the line delivery and word choice for the cast. While Donald Sutherland’s lines were more warming and naturally delivered, the dialogue from other folks seemed cold, distant, and unrealistic given the situations. It took me out of the film for some of it.
And it also seemed like Pitt had the most screen time out of everyone. The other cast billed in the film seemed like they were hardly in it. I never saw Liv Tyler for more than 10 seconds in any given scene. Sutherland had a few moments, but he’s gone for the rest of the film. Ruth Negga is in it for a minute during a very pivotal part of the film, and that’s about it.
Perhaps this was the best way the director felt to show the disconnect that Pitt’s character was feeling. He only gets these fleeting moments with other characters, but most of his time is alone with machines. This is enhanced by the robotic AI taking notes of his psychological well-being.
But as for the rest of the cast and crew, the word choice among them seemed more like a politically correct military code of conduct book. They preferred this rather than a nuts-and-bolts conversation that gets to the point given their circumstances.
I found myself most annoyed at a character named Donald Stanford, played by Loren Dean. I promise, no spoilers. But I found myself shaking my head at his scenes because his actions didn’t exhibit any level of competency in his position in the military. There was no reason for Deen’s character to be so spineless, without any reason behind it.
Looks and Feel
Along with the cold and disconnected dialogue, there is a tonal shift that comes with temperature and colors in the film. The further our character gets from the sun, the hue gets colder, bluer, and so does the feeling of isolation. Roy essentially strips everything away to get to where he needs to go, and the progression in the color scheme reflects his journey almost perfectly.
Along with the colors there is a look to the tech that makes realism and space travel combine. Whenever we look at astronauts on the space station or on a shuttle, the craft is really disorganized looking and things tend to float all over the place. There is no rhyme or reason to where things are and the layout is neither clean nor organized.
Someone once told me that an engineer’s job is to make it work, no matter how ugly it looks. An architect’s job is to make it look pretty.
And this felt like an architect’s nightmare. We don’t get the dirty but organized hull of the Millennium Falcon. We don’t get the sleek design of the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise. There is a framework and bare-bones layout of what is most modern space shuttles. Like I said, it’s stripped-down to its most essential elements that mimic the movie feel. It means to keep travelers alive for the most part. Functional with life support systems and tools for survival. And maybe that’s a deeper telling of the mental state of our main character more than anything.
As 2019 begins its last box office attempts, Walt Disney puts out Ad Astra, one of the last production efforts of 20th Century Fox. It stands as a testament of how far we’ve come in replicating the space experience for film, but does little to stand out against other more recent films in that same vein. It’s a voyage story, but it’s a very human reflection on ambition, the sacrifices it takes and the consequences. It’s a modern tale on the sins of our fathers and the children who pay their dues. I mark this movie solely on its delivery of the story, it’s characters, and the various elements that help or hinder it. The 4DX experience was just icing on the cake, and if it were available to everyone watching the film, it would certainly receive a higher score for that alone. But elements in the dialogue and line delivery bring the film down from being a great film, only to settle at good.
- Realistic Space Feel
- Tone/Setting reflects inner conflict of main character
- Relatable experiences in the writing; just set in space
- Dialogue cold/unrealistic at times
- Some acting uncharacteristic given the situation
- Little time given to other characters in the film