AD ASTRA – A Review By Gadi Elkon

To the Star aka Ad Astra is a shortened version of what the ancient Greeks (Virgil or Seneca the Younger) believed to be an important question.  They were begging to answer the questions of this massive universe “above” them.  They wanted to know what was up there.  Well we’ve been battling that question ever since.  And the latest work from James Gray pairing with Brad Pitt does exactly that…it’s even the TITLE!

Here is my review of AD ASTRA.

A paranoid thriller in space that follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) on a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.  

Ad Astra is a complexing film.  It holds all the magic of beautiful space films like Gravity or 2001: Space Odyssey.  Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematographic is epic, especially if you see it on IMAX.  Add in the always haunting touch of Max Richter’s musical score and you basically have 2 of 3 quality elements in a bad ass cinematic event!  I mean this was suppose to blow our minds away.  Gray and his team have been dealing with this damn thing for YEARS.  Even back in 2016 he hinted strongly at, I had read all this [stuff] and I thought it would be interesting to mix a [Joseph] Conrad-type idea with something that goes terribly wrong. (From Article on Playlist about a Lincoln Center chat Gray had).  He also mentioned “science fact”.  I mean his research into real life Mars exploration and the way in which NASA hoped to change the game.  There is a lot of intriguing ideas that come from this epic like idea.

The precise nature of where our push into colonization of the Moon, Mars and our overall tackling of movement into space would be both governmentally based (NASA) and entrepreneurial (Virgin, Tesla, Big Money).  Both elements are reflected mostly in the Moon sequences, especially the “flight” to the moon being like a regular plane ride to the Florida.  In fact, the film holds a wonderful joke where Brad Pitt requests a sleeping pill for the trip and he is answered by the lovely stewardess stating, “That’ll be $125”.  What is he on Spirit Airlines? The mixture of big business and government (military) involvement in the space battle is the one of the main blocks of the film.  Total Recall (the original) did the same thing to though and shit Arnie’s trip to MARS was a hell of a lot more exciting!   Another unique element is the rogue factions (never identified) who wage space war.  Yes we do have freaking LASAR GUNS in this movie.  Well technically we have that tech now, but to put it in a “thinking man’s space movie” is what some would call bold.  I mean the most exciting elements of Ad Astra is a toss up between the Lasar gun dune-buggy battle or Brad Pitt falling “back to earth” in the opening sequence.   All of this socio-economic, political, world building surrounding set fodder mixed with slightly traumatic heart pounding sequences adds a lot to what basically is a sad son misses his daddy story.

Gray does father-son tales really well.  This one is no different and the real heart or possibly downfall of the movie.  Depends entirely maybe on your own thoughts on fatherhood or lack there of.  I think the power of this film will be determined by the mindset of those watching it much more than any on-screen spectacle making.  This is where the film really weighed heavily for me.  I found myself not enjoying the narrow world of sad Brad Pitt just “going along” with the hunt for his long lost daddy.  Not only does this movie beg for a more dynamic female presence it openly pushes away all logic.  Liv Tyler (Eve) and Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos) are sadly underdeveloped figures who act merely as Pitt’s emotional trigger to basically do what we already know he will do. Even when Donald Sutherland’s Thomas Pruitt keeps asking why he wants to do this.  Well until Sutherland becomes to useless and is basically left to die on the moon.  Wow thanks for the sage Obi Wan attempt but what the hell is going on?  Pitt never has a real moment of honest truth.  He is a stone cold figure.  Until the film needs him to not be.  So he magically delivers a sad space text to daddy that causes a few tears and the government to rightly go WTF.  But mysteriously Ruth Negga takes her one small encounter with Pitt to reveal a HUGE secret that is never mentioned or warned by the all known military behind this mission.  I mean her revelation to Pitt’s Major McBride changes EVERYTHING.  And some how in a few hours Negga pulls off a slick way to “sneak” McBride onto the trip to Neptune.  Wait WHAT, the lady who didn’t have access to McBride’s mission (though she runs MARS).  Yeah in the entire 2 hour 2 mins of this film we are given a 4 minute block that completely fucks with all our knowledge of what is going on.  This isn’t like Usual Suspects OMG moment but rather it’s like a shitty horror film’s premise of wait all we had to do was NOT GO UP THE FUCKING STAIRS to our Death?  Wait I’ve been listening to Brad Pitt think about the mysteries of existence for THIS?  BUT wait.  For all it’s majestic cinematic work and the many sad Brad Pitt looks we are left with a long ride of him pouting through space, again.  And in the end?  Well I won’t spoil it, but obviously it ain’t enough to make me give this film a top grade.  I mean there isn’t a Dad meets Son and the world’s questions are answered.  The Lima or Lira or whatever the original project was called is pointless.  Instead the deep vacuum of space just stops any notion of closure.  Why?  What? HOW?  Where did this film take me?   No this isn’t a game-changer.  No it’s not Oscar worthy.  And honestly I enjoyed the realities of Downton Abbey and Hustlers more.  Basically I think Gray and Pitt work well together but lets lean more on the DARKNESS in Conrad’s work not the HEART.  Either way on their next work I hope they finally tell a story with a freaking point.  “Look to the Stars”, FOR WHAT???????  I’m still waiting to find that part out.  What the hell did we find in the stars?

 

 

AD ASTRA 

Selig Rating:  C+

Release: September 20, 2019

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Directed by: James Gray

Written by: James Gray & Ethan Gross

Run Time:  2hr 2min

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland

 

The Selig Rating Scale:

A – Excellent movie, well worth the price.

B – Good movie

C – OK movie

D – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.

F – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.

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