"Ad Astra" is a beautiful, suspenseful, cerebral movie. Action fans are giving "Ad Astra" terrible reviews. There is a solution to this problem. Action fans should not go see "Ad Astra"
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent to the edges of the solar system to save life on planet Earth. That's pretty much the entire plot. Brad Pitt in space is almost the whole show. There is a terrific supporting cast: Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones, but most of these actors are given precious little to do.
The film places a great deal of emphasis on the physical fitness required for successful space travel. Brad Pitt's vital signs are constantly being monitored. And yet we are supposed to believe that the US government sent Donald Sutherland, looking every minute of his 84 years, into space. In fact Sutherland's part could be lifted out of the movie and the movie wouldn't change. I wondered what Sutherland was doing there and thought perhaps it was to make 55 year old Brad Pitt look young, but Pitt doesn't need it. That man hit the gene jackpot.
"Ad Astra" is suspenseful. There is the "Houston, we have a problem" surge scene, that one can see in trailers. There is the space pirates scene, the bad space monkeys scene, the "Uh oh, I've inadvertently killed a bunch of people" scene, and a surprising scene involving travel under water that may or may not be a reference to the birth canal. These scenes are episodic. They don't build to a larger point. Characters come and go, but they are not developed. That aspect of the script was disappointing, but perhaps inevitable. "Ad Astra" is about the loneliness of an astronaut, and all people's loneliness. It's about an astronaut's vulnerability, and all of ours. It's about trying to find meaning in lives that can feel meaningless.
"Ad Astra" also depicts the inevitable Big Brother aspect of space travel. Here on earth, you can breathe and eat without too much government intervention. Not so in space. Astronauts are dependent on the government for the very air they breathe. If a spaceman runs afoul of what the government wants him to do, he has few options. He can't manufacture his own air.
Set after set shows McBride isolated in punishing landscapes. Either he is driving around the grey, lifeless moon, or sitting in a soundproof booth facing the most sinister sound engineers and radio operators in movie history. There's an environment that is designed to be comfortable and reassuring, and it's one of the creepiest sets of all. I love the wrinkles in the wallpaper.
"Ad Astra" depicts an unflattering view of space travel. This isn't "Star Wars" or even "Star Trek." It's closer to, but more coherent than, "2001, A Space Odyssey." Hal isn't a mistake here. Hal is a necessary part of the system. Humans trash space just as they trash the earth. Everything that is cheap and tacky on earth ends up in space, as well.
Unlike most other space movies, "Ad Astra" mentions earth-bound religious practice. An astronaut prays to St Christopher. What becomes of him can be taken as a statement about Catholic faith by the filmmaker, James Gray, who comes from a Ukrainian Jewish background.
Even though some will see "Ad Astra" as a cold movie, there is a scene where Brad Pitt cries. It's one of the most moving crying scenes I've ever seen. "Luke, I am your father" is one unforgettable space movie scene involving fathers and sons. For my money, this scene in "Ad Astra" is more powerful. Max Richter's score is one of the best film scores I've heard.