Movie Review: Ad Astra

Ad Astra is about a career astronaut and soldier, Maj. Roy McBride, who is tasked with attempting to contact his distant father. The elder McBride is suspected of sending dangerous anti-matter surges into the solar system from his ship in orbit around Neptune. Of course, everything goes horribly wrong for Roy and he ends up making it his mission to go out to Neptune to confront his father himself. The film stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. It is directed and co-written by James Gray.

I expected to be wowed by this film after reading that this space drama also included subplots about pirates and apes, but I was very disappointed. Those extras don't enhance or inject the main plot with anything, but a few brooding remarks inside Roy's voiceover. In fact, everything that's not dealing directly with the story is completely confusing and unexplained. I don't need anyone to spoon feed me exposition, but something would be better than the sparse information we're given.

Take the pirates for example. The moon is a barren rock. It's desolate, unmoving and it seems just a fun tourist destination for the wealthy and a military installation for space command. So, why are these pirates here? The voiceover suggests their primary motivation is gathering resources. What resources? Rocks? Dust? How did the pirates get here? Are they wayward tourists? This is the biggest issue I have with Ad Astra. If the film is going to have grand space epic adventure elements, it's got to lean into the grand space elements, but if the main plot is to make an exploration of the humanity within father son relationships, stick to it. Everything else in this film is utterly unnecessary. It's filler that makes the two hour runtime feel like six.

The main plot is fascinating, though. It's a great character piece and examination of nature and nurture. I loved watching the scenes where Roy is giving his psychological evaluations and it would flash to something he's attempting to suppress, a feeling he has to hide because he just has to be out there where he's alone. I liked his desperation not to end up like his father even as he makes all the same mistakes and falls into the same traps. I understood Roy's motivation. I can't say that for any other character in the film, though.

There is so much misinformation and secrecy in regard to what Roy is going to do. It's really hard to understand who is telling the truth about what. The space command is telling Roy his father's a mad man, mad at Earth. The director of Mars tells him his father is a mad man who killed his crew because of his zealotry. Clifford, Roy's father, tells him he's a mad man because he's the only one who understands how important the work is and that there's no going back.

I'll be honest, I assumed Clifford was a figment of Roy's deep space psychosis for the first few seconds he's on screen. I'm still not sure because his character makes so little sense as a character. I'm not sure why the crew of Roy's ship takes him on in combat, why space command would send an octogenarian as Roy's escort, or why if this mission requires no emotional response whatsoever from its commander, that they would send the son of the man they're trying to stop?

It doesn't help anything to know Roy is a Mary Sue. He can literally do anything, survive a miles long drop to the Earth's surface, land a wayward rocket perfectly, make each shot of his laser pistol hit exactly where it needs to to save the day. He can do no wrong and it's incredibly frustrating. At least show some effort in his thought process or have him miss a few shots or make him sweat when he's in danger. He's a wooden block of calm in these situations and completely removed me from the magic of the film. I like that he's smart, I like that he can take command, I just don't understand why he can't have a personality or emotion while doing it.

The plot of Ad Astra is really intriguing and great on paper, but the execution is sorely lacking. Instead of a deep, psychological portrait of a character like Moon, we got a wayward and meandering Apocalypse Now in space with none of the memorable characters to entertain. I disagree heartily with others in the film community who heap praise upon James Gray's works, much like the breadth of his filmography, this one leaves me completely cold. I don't recommend you spend any time with it.

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