Written by Aaron Radcliff:
There are several actors and actresses that don’t have an Oscar to their name, and Brad Pitt is one of the most surprising names on that list (technically he has one as a producer for 12 Years a Slave, but you know what I mean). In such a long, illustrious career, the fact that the scruffier side of Brangelina doesn’t have the major hardware might be shocking to some. Now, Pitt finds himself swinging for the stars and beyond in his latest outing, Ad Astra.
Many people might mistake Ad Astra for an epic space adventure due to its marketing and pulse-pounding opening that sees Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, survive a plummet from low orbit after an event called The Surge. Even after McBride is conscripted to travel to Mars in an attempt to contact his long-lost father, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in for deep space hijinks thanks to a chase sequence on the moon involving space pirates. Instead, Ad Astra wants us to focus on and connect with McBride in a deliberately-paced tale of emotional turmoil and the struggle of overcoming the past you’d thought was long buried.
Writer/director James Gray (who also wrote and directed Lost City of Z, which ended up on my Best Movies of 2017 list) crafts a story that’s thick in atmosphere and inner turmoil. As McBride continues on his mission, he trudges through isolation and doubt in an attempt to answer what kind of person he is. His stoicism pierces through the eerie calmness in each scene thanks to Pitt’s stellar acting and emoting. You feel his façade struggling to maintain itself under the pressure of expectation and anxiety. It’s these quieter, human moments that allow Pitt to excel in his role and emphasize the story.
Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema’s (Her, Dunkirk, and Interstellar) visuals help add another layer thanks to his balance of awe-inspiring vastness and claustrophobic intimacy. The confines of the spacecraft offer a sense of comfort and growth while the darkness of space/other planets leave you grasping for air. It’s through the cinematography and Brad Pitt’s acting that Ad Astra manages to reach the lofty heights it set out for itself.
Gravity, however, is a fickle mistress.
Ad Astra may be pretty and emotional, but it’s also very…up its own ass…to put it lightly. Brad Pitt narrates the mental struggle his character goes through and it manages to undercut much of the emotion. It’s as if James Gray was afraid the audience wouldn’t be able to look at Pitt’s face and figure things out for ourselves. When the narration isn’t diminishing the emotional impact of Pitt’s performance, it’s pointing out the obvious at every turn. It’d be forgivable if the story was complex or the narration was taking us on a deep, emotional journey, but it’s neither of them. “I’m resentful of my dad leaving. I’ve turned into him and it has ruined my relationships and makes me deeply unhappy.” There you go. There’s EVERY narration presented in two sentences and is equivalently deep.
The story, and even Pitt’s character, don’t push the boundaries of emotional depth or growth. You never feel as though he’s working to understand his problems and how to combat them. He already has it all figured out and is essentially on this multi-billion-mile journey to tell his dad about it. It worked in Lost City of Z because Gray let us experience the emotional revelations and wonders of the journey at the same time as our character. Here, it’s Brad Pitt spending two hours doing the same thing he’s done his character’s whole career, just further away.
Ad Astra is what some might consider a “slow burn.” Personally, I love those kind of movies. Give me an atmospheric, emotional, slow-paced film and it’ll light up my loins like a ghost pepper Brazilian wax. Yet even by my standards, Ad Astra is boring. When you have a slow pace, you need other things to grip onto, and that typically comes through strong characters and story. Ad Astra‘s story, while straightforward, is barebones and even comical at times. Pitt’s character, while acted extremely well, is only surface deep, waxing poetically while only having a toe dipped into the vast ocean of What does it all mean? Because of that, Ad Astra can’t claim to be an intellectual slow burn like it thinks it can. It’s a boring Philosophy 101 lecture with pretty visuals.
The thing is, despite all that, it isn’t necessarily bad. There’s still plenty it does well from a technical standpoint. Hoytema’s masterful cinematography, Pitt’s acting, and strong sound design truly manage to pull you into the scene on many occasions. It’s just a shame that most of the good will built up from that is wasted on a paper-thin story with the philosophical and emotional depth of a puddle.
Score: 6 out of 10
Images via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures