Though Technically Stunning, ‘Ad Astra’ Disappoints Narratively (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=6.00]

There’s no denying the breathtaking technical beauty of Ad Astra, the latest film from director James Gray. On a purely cinematic level, space hasn’t looked this good since Kubrick. The sweeping shots of our solar system as astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to our outer rim are stunning, managing to capture the awe-inspiring vastness of our home base in ways that haven’t been seen in decades.

It’s in the narrative execution where the film falls apart, however. While aspiring (and occasionally reaching) the mythic, Ad Astra ultimately feels like a series of strung together musings of an overwrought teenager lamenting how alone they are in this world. Most of this comes in the form of a never-ending barrage of voice over from McBride, the effect of which becomes more and more irritating the longer the film continues. Scenes that might have been otherwise masterful are sullied by the near constant exposition, as if Gray, who also co-wrote the script alongside Ethan Gross, couldn’t find it in himself to trust the audience to reach the proper conclusions.

Perhaps this is an effect of trying to turn what might have otherwise been a perfectly serviceable arthouse exploration of family and loss into a big budget science fiction extravaganza, which might also go a long way towards explaining the moon pirate car chase and crazed space baboons. These are odd moments to consider from a film that has garnered much in the way of pre-awards season buzz, but I guess it’s kind of cool that someone got to do a race scene on the moon before the Fast & Furious franchise could get around to it.

For every scene of meaningful introspection, there exists another that feels out of place within the narrative of this movie. It’s almost as if Gray couldn’t figure out the lane in which he wanted Ad Astra to be. Other movies, of course, have walked this lane fairly well. Interstellar comes most immediately to mind; there, Christopher Nolan managed to blur the lines between epic science fiction action and introspective meditation to create something that was fairly spectacular. Interstellar this ain’t, however.

Which is unfortunate because it almost could’ve been. Pitt, insipid voiceover aside, gives a career best performance in what is, ultimately, a story about a man living in the shadow of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who decades ago embarked on a mission to Neptune in order to better seek out alien life. Long presumed dead, McBride’s superiors begin to suspect he may be alive after earth suffers a series of catastrophic bombardments of dark matter (which powered the elder McBride’s ship) emanating from the Neptune. Could his father, gone all these years, still be alive? Is he somehow responsible for the potentially life destroying waves of energy hitting earth?

While this sets up the prospect of a fascinating tale with an epic scope—McBride is, in his own way, kind of Odysseus, drifting through the seas and trying to find his way home—Ad Astra can only just barely hold up to its own weight and comes across as a film much more shallow than it hopes it is. Considering what it might have been if Gray could be bothered to trust his audience more (and with a few scenes snipped) the disappointment of Ad Astra is at least as vast the solar system.

Ad Astra is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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