Ad Astra, co-written and directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z), is a new star-driven sci-fi epic, a breed of film once thought to be extinct. Visually phenomenal, but lacking in original ideas, this derivative and sometimes tedious meditation on exploration is a disappointingly tedious feast for the eyes.
The movie follows an astronaut who is sent into space to uncover the truth regarding his father who went on a mission thirty years prior which is threatening to impact the future of humanity. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is similar to Apocalypse Now, in fact eerily so. Although Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for Coppola’s film) is not credited, it was obviously an inspiration for Gray while writing his script.
That isn’t to say that the movie is bad — Gray just seems to think that it is more visionary than in actually is. In reality, the film covers already trodden ground, both narratively and thematically. Because of this, every beat in the story feels telegraphed and predictable. There are a few truly exciting scenes (including one riveting action sequence taking place on the moon), but more often than not, the philosophical ramblings of the characters feel like old news.
Much of the movie’s thematic content is delivered via narration from the protagonist. The film has a lot to say about exploration, international politics, and the psychological impacts these have on people, but these big themes aren’t what feels most interesting about this movie. Instead, it is the family drama, in which the protagonist tries to cope with the realization that his father whom he presumed dead may actually still be alive, that is fascinating. Yet the film reaches “to the stars” and leaves the compelling drama underdeveloped on the ground.
The protagonist, Roy McBride, is an interesting character, but the audience is forced into identifying with his perspective through the narration. Had more natural means been used, this connection would have been stronger and the exposition would have been rendered unnecessary. However, perhaps most frustrating about the movie is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Some of the best moments of Apocalypse Now are those in which the protagonist interacts with zany side characters. That is what is missing from Ad Astra.
Brad Pitt’s performance in the film is great, much more subtle and effective than anything he has done in recent memory. Although his big and flashy turns are more enjoyable, it is nice to see him get work like this in which the details make the difference. The supporting cast is also very good, albeit underused. The best supporting performance comes from Donald Sutherland, although Tommy Lee Jones is likely to get most of the attention.
Of course, the main reason to see this movie is the visual grandeur Gray brings to the screen. This is one of those “see it on the big screen or don’t see it at all” cases that would fall apart even more if watched at home on a smaller screen. The cinematography, visual effects, and production are great, transporting the audience into the futuristic world of the film. Max Richter’s score is also excellent, one of the year’s finest, yet it sadly won’t qualify for major awards on a technicality.
Unfortunately, Ad Astra doesn’t quite reach the heights that it should. It looks great, features good performances, and is entirely watchable, but the writing simply isn’t that special. This will have its fair share of fans, and understandably so, though it is far from a masterpiece.
Ad Astra is now playing in theaters.