Ad Astra – Equal Parts Gorgeous and Boring

Title: Ad Astra

Release: September 20, 2019

Director: James Gray

Writer(s): James Gray, Ethan Gross

Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland

*Warning, this review may contain spoilers.

The 2010s should be known as the decade of science fiction and comic book movies. Being nerdy is hip and trendy these days, and it’s publicly accepted to be a fan of sci-fi and comics as the genres have broken into mainstream media. I am personally feeling overexposed to the comic book movie genre as I find it to have severe limitations, especially when working with the same characters over and over. But the sci-fi genre is limitless. It has no bounds. Ad Astra may not redefine the sci-fi genre, but it does present some unique themes, taking its audience places they’ve never been before. Too bad the allure of new exploration and a superstar actor can’t save Ad Astra from its uninteresting plot and slothy pace.

Story

In the near future, humans have colonized Earth’s moon and established a base on Mars. With Earth’s countries being at odds against each other, humans look to the stars for peace and solidarity. Amid a series of life-threatening power surges emanating from somewhere near Neptune, the folks at NASA are reminded of a manned mission with which they lost contact over a decade ago. It is believed that the astronomers of that lost spacecraft may still be alive, and may be responsible for the power surges.

Amidst these speculations, the powers of the space agency recruit Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) to help contact the lost spacecraft since its lead astronomer is McBride’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy embarks on a journey from Earth to the moon to Mars and eventually to Neptune where he makes some unpredictable discoveries!

Feeling Uneasy

I started my review notes the morning after viewing Ad Astra. Here I sit writing this review, many weeks later, and I’m surprisingly uncomfortable. Why? Because so much of me disliked the movie and its uninteresting plot, but for whatever reason my mind keeps taking me back there. It has me feeling inadequate in my ability to objectively review the movie. Throughout its overlong runtime, I could hardly stay awake, despite the breathtaking scenery and occasional nailbiting action. Part of the issue is that the plot is weak and fails to draw its viewers in, relying heavily, much to our dismay, on the emotionless acting of Pitt.

Despite my criticisms of the eyelid-dropping plot and pace, Ad Astra is not without its positive moments. Unfortunately those moments are few and far between with very little lost or gained throughout. One such positive moment involves Pitt and his crew investigating a distress signal where they encounter rabid monkeys. With a fun yet quick jumpscare to start the space monkey chaos, the excitement ends and everything returns to normalcy… Which is to say, more meaningless space meandering.

Pockets of Refreshment

You see, Ad Astra is a slow-paced space drama laced with tiny pockets of refreshment. The oasis-esque moments are not enough to save the audience from the space desert of which Pitt is roaming. However, there are two scenes that stand out to me as the most thrilling, whether it be conceptual or visual.

The first scene, and perhaps the one that is most deserving of a future movie plot, takes place on the moon. In this future, the moon is inhabited and there are numerous bases all across its land. As Brad Pitt travels — via moon rover — from one base to another, they are intercepted by a gang of pirates (moon pirates?). A gnarly gun battle ensues, some folks die, some explode, etc. It’s a very lively and dramatic action scene reminiscent of Mad Max (without all the badass clothes and vehicles). How many futuristic sci-fi movies do we have on Earth’s moon? Not enough. Can we please get a Mad Max style movie that takes place in the future on the moon?

The second scene involves Brad Pitt free-floating in space near the rings of Neptune. It’s rare for sci-fi space movies to feature anything from our Solar System, much-less to show a planet with such depth and attention to detail. Neptune is one of our more mysterious planets being the furthest from our Sun. The special effects team, CGI team, and director of photography delivered a visual spectacle the likes of which I have never seen. The sharp blue planet contrasting against the blackness of infinite space lends a real sense of isolation and helplessness. It is an impressive sight of realism and more exciting to witness than to read about.

Conclusion

Overall, Ad Astra is a fairly pedestrian science fiction movie that delivers very little in terms of rewatchability. Dragging your feet between hurdles is no way to win a track meet, and Ad Astra does exactly that. The fun parts of the movie are short-lived and aimlessly scattered about. When we do encounter something view-worthy, the adventure seems to end right as the audience is warming up to the change of pace. It’s a bit jarring at times, but the reprieve from the slow moments is appreciated regardless.

Furthermore, Pitt’s performance is extremely monotone, but I can’t say his acting was bad. Maybe that’s the type of character that director James Gray was going for: withdrawn and unflinchingly focused. When we finally reach the climax that we worked so long to stay awake for, we’re dealt a big giant dud that takes the wind right from our sails. Ad Astra is full of promise, but the final product will leave you confounded and unfulfilled.

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