Brad Pitt has intergalactic daddy issues in the beautiful but flawed and rather average AD ASTRA.
By Matt Cummings
Think about a great Science-Fiction film from the past 5 years, and BLADE RUNNER 2049, THE MARTIAN, FIRST MAN and INTERSTELLAR might come to mind. Big in scope but ultimately about people, these gems have emerged from a genre that only recently has plotted a course beyond lightsabers and phasers. But what happens when your well-meaning genre film wades into a galactic pool with spectacles as big as these? This is the position that the drama AD ASTRA finds itself: stuck at the periphery of more legitimate Oscar contenders waiting for us in the Fall, but unable to separate itself as nothing more than a Frankensteined replica of better Science-Fiction films.
Mid-21st Century Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has made a name for himself as one of the world’s top spacemen. Cool under every pressure – including an incredible Earth fall at film’s beginning – Roy has space in veins. His father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) was Earth’s favorite astronaut, until he and his crew disappeared 16 years ago while journeying to Neptune. Not coincidentally, a series of ever-increasing anti-matter blasts from that planet begin to strike Earth, leading those in charge to hurry Pitt to said distant planet with a single order: stop the blasts from destroying the solar system. But with Mars and the Moon sporting humans (and unfortunately their territorial tendencies), McBride is thrust into a mission that’s both end-of-universe level heroism and a personal search that will push his stoic personality to the edge of his sanity.
Director Gary Gray (THE LOST CITY OF Z) and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema team up to deliver one of the most striking-looking films of 2019, making space as beautiful and as dangerous as we all think it is. Gray is a first-class character director, wading us deep into McBride’s ruminations about why Dad left the family to pursue a career in space. As ASTRA evolves, Gray and co-Writer Ethan Gross attempt to keep our attention by introducing a shocker: Clifford is not only alive but is to blame for the bursts. The problem is that this takes too long to play out and doesn’t leave enough time to answer all of McBride’s many questions about his dad. Instead, Roy travels from one distopian planet to another, as humans war over minerals without considering the value of building underground roads to protect their people.
For Pitt, AD ASTRA is way out of his comfort zone, and perhaps that’s good. Content over the past decade playing roles in OCEANS 11 and ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, the script reads like a perfect fit for Ryan Gosling or Matthew McGonaughey. Pitt’s performance isn’t terrible, as he emotes the difficulties of space travel. but I kept waiting for him to start eating something as food seems to be a thing for him. I do think seeing AD ASTRA on a on large-format screen is a must if you’re going to take the chance on it, but it’s clear that this one was moved off the burners for perhaps something better. Only time will tell.
AD ASTRA is a gorgeous looking movie, but its promise of a powerful father-son space drama falls way short. It reminds us of the haphazard plot cloning that’s plagued this year’s films, which collectively are down 6% from 2018. Pitt is fine but a more appropriate alternative might have made the slow burn here more palatable. When your film promises to feature a Jones-Pitt sitdown and all you get is about 5 minutes of them together, it makes you wonder if Gray really understood his own film.
AD ASTRA is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language and has a runtime of 122 minutes.