Ad Astra shoots for the stars but doesn’t quite make it beyond the Moon (minor spoilers)

James Gray’s Ad Astra had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival to wide critical acclaim and was immediately hailed as an early awards season contender, both as an exploration of the human condition and for Brad Pitt’s understated and nuanced acting performance. It has variously been compared with cinematic classics like Apocalypse Now (1979), Solaris (1972) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for its meditative tone, measured pacing and focus on relationships rather than mindless action.

I’ve been a fan of James Gray’s grounded New York based stories for some years – his two crime thrillers, The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007), both starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, and The Immigrant (2013), a drama set in the early 20’s starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. All three films, as well as 2008’s Two Lovers (which I haven’t seen) were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. In 2016, James Gray stepped out of New York City for the first time with the true-life drama The Lost City of Z, which chronicled the efforts of British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) to discover a mythical lost city in the Amazon jungle during the early 20th century. This film attracted rave reviews for Robert Pattinson’s supporting role and for its cinematography and screenplay.

Suffice to say, James Gray is a respected filmmaker who is known for extracting great acting performances from big name actors in very grounded, realistic stories. So, when he announced in 2016 that he wanted to feature the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie, everyone sat up and took notice. Expectations were stoked by the work of other auteurs who had delved into the space movie genre in the immediate past, specifically Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan with Interstellar (2014) and even Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). All these films employed new techniques or striking production design to depict a very realistic present or near future view of space exploration. In addition, these films were also commercially-oriented with conventional plotting and action sequences, which led to them becoming big box office hits, each making in the region of USD 600-700 million globally.

Having watched Ad Astra last night, I can say that the result is closer to the work of another great auteur, Terrence Malick. And as anyone who has watched recent movies by Malick can attest to, his films frequently forgo plot and pacing in favour of expressing moods and emotions. This explains the comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. However, those films had the advantage of also breaking technical ground in their realistic depiction of space exploration at a time when the world was enthralled by the space race of the 60’s and the moon landings. So, while they were leisurely paced and thinly plotted “art films”, they still attracted large audiences because they reflected a key cultural zeitgeist and because of the dazzling visuals that had not been seen on screen previously. Naturally, these films cemented their place in movie history as critical and commercial hits. Likewise, Apocalypse Now had some amazing visual sequences, but also touched upon the highly emotional topic of the Vietnam War for American audiences and revealed to them the brutal conditions and the fragile mental state of the American soldiers there. In fact, I haven’t understood the comparison to Apocalypse Now because there is no ‘heart of darkness’ or large scale human tragedy being explored here, just a single individual’s silent inner conflict related to unresolved ‘daddy issues’.

The problem with Ad Astra is that it’s stuck in a no-man’s land, on three counts:

One, it’s overall theme, which I interpreted as juxtaposing the search for intelligent life in the universe vs. the importance of nurturing meaningful relationships with people on Earth. This is indeed a big idea. Sadly, it does not find an anchor in today’s zeitgeist which is focused on climate change and race/gender equality. And therefore, the film fails to connect with the audience at an emotional level. We just don’t care about the outcome. Perhaps this theme would have been meaningful if it had come out at the height of the space race in the 60s.

Two, it doesn’t sufficiently leverage the opportunity for striking big screen imagery, except for one sequence right at the beginning with the Space Antenna and another one on the surface of the Moon; but there are better versions of both – one in Star Trek (2009) with the Narada space drill and the second in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) with the final chase scene.

And three, the technology in the film is not even as realistic as the filmmaker’s stated ambitions, with several scenes and plot points stretching credibility. This is not a problem when watching an action movie, but is really difficult to accept when the film has been sold as a realistic depiction of space travel. There are quite a few instances that just felt technically incorrect or pointless and contrived:-

  • It’s difficult to understand why Brad Pitt’s character Major McBride needed to be transported all the way to Mars, just to send a top-secret voice message to Neptune. Why couldn’t they have just recorded this on Earth and then transmitted via a relay of secure satellites and transmitting stations on the Moon and Mars?
  • I can’t understand how a spaceship on a slingshot trajectory from the Moon to Mars could use up fuel to slow down quickly enough to attend to a distress call from a research station and then start up its engines and pick up the acceleration to resume its journey to Mars.
  • And on Mars, the manner in which Major McBride boards the rocket leaving for Neptune seemed more suited to a Dwayne Johnson Fast and Furious spin-off than a ‘realistic’ movie about space exploration.  
  • And finally, using a nuclear explosion to accelerate your spaceship back to Earth feels like the kind of ‘pop science’ we would expect from Tony Stark or Star-Lord in a Marvel movie.

It almost feels like this is a film created by two voices. One is driven by the director’s core strength which is in making grounded, realistic movies about human emotions and motivations. The other is driven by the director’s ambition (and surely the studio’s as well) to create a space-based dramatic action movie.

And because of this intrinsic narrative conflict, I believe that Ad Astra will fade from theaters and the public consciousness quickly, neither fully satisfying critics nor paying audiences. The best bet is that Brad Pitt will deservedly be acknowledged for his acting performance (and in fact, he will probably also get nominated for his supporting role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). And hopefully for director James Gray, we will see him return to form with his next film, no matter where it’s set.

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