Ad Astra: Lost In Space
As one critic said; ‘Brad Pitt. In space. You got me.’ And so it would seem. The Venice Film Festival adored James Gray’s space epic, the first serious SF film out of the gate in a long while, although there were rumblings of discontent. Now, having seen it and heard Gray talking about it, I’m on the discontent side. Serious SF is easier to pull off in literature than on the screen, and despite its occasionally terrific entertainment value ‘Ad Astra’ remains resolutely shallow.
Festival films are very good at pulling the wool over audience’s eyes. Sensations there become flops on release when people can regard them with a cooler, less hysterical eye. And while ‘Ad Astra’ periodically delivers on thrills, its attempt to be taken seriously may not play as well on release as it did in Venice.
Pitt is the nerves-of-steel son of the world’s most famous astronaut, who, like Voyager, went further than anyone before him, all the way to Neptune, on a mission to find extraterrestrial life. Then, like Captain Kurtz, he went AWOL. The problem was that he had with him the film’s McGuffin, an anti-matter device that is now fires electronic pulses at Earth. Has he gone mad, or does he have a purpose? Someone has to stop him. How about his son, who is still suffering from abandonment issues?
Along the way (and it’s a long journey) we get pirates on the moon, surfing Neptune’s ring on a tea tray and an extremely odd choice for a spacecraft passenger, all great fun, all very silly indeed, yet these action scenes have no bearing on the story’s main arc, and are inserted to prevent the film turning into a soporific collection of close ups on Brad’s magnificently maturing face. Brad is hardly off-screen for a second, ruminating in a hushed voiceover and looking soulful. I’m fine with that, but his thoughts are not exactly deep.
It’s very reminiscent of ‘Apocalypse Now’, but as our hero journeys toward an inevitable showdown with his father we reach a payoff than has little emotional weight, because the daddy issue is just that, an unearned writer’s device, and Tommy Lee Jones fails to provide a single reason for Brad’s trip. Worse served is Liv Tyler as Brad’s wife, who gets a couple of lines and a role that consist of lying in bed or looking pouty. I thought we’d done with those?
In his post-film talk, the director (who had trouble staying on one subject for more than 20 seconds) suggested that he was covering The Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachus, but I’d suggest that ‘Ad Astra’ is ‘Contact’ + ‘Gravity’ + ‘Moon Zero Two’. The set pieces are exciting, especially the opening one on a low-atmosphere rig, but for a film with avowedly serious themes it’s peppered with plot holes and absurdities.
There are moments that suggest another better film; Earth has already Americanised the moon, opening junk food shops and having trouble with rebels. And a profound moment, when Brad discovers that the mission doesn’t need him anymore. But then there’s the problem of Dad. If he wants to stop his home planet from wrecking everything else in the universe and is firing his anti-matter device to stop them the story would make sense. In fact, what is that anti-matter device for at all? What was he meant to do with it? How can it affect the Earth from Neptune? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Dad to find life out there and be fearful that Earth travellers will negatively affect it? The explanation for his actions, when they eventually arrive, is dismissed in a line of dialogue.
Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. Is it serious SF? Not remotely.