Brad Pitt toplines co-writer/co-producer/director James Gray’s science fictional psychodrama, and he’s certainly the best reason to sit through this weirdly overrated, oddly episodic and only vaguely moving saga.
Better-known for far more Earthbound epics like The Immigrant, Gray sidesteps cosmic conundrums like those in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and instead opts for a would-be-realistic depiction of space travel decades from now. The result bears hints of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (naturally), a big whack of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (and therefore Apocalypse Now), and an unfortunate glimmer of John Carpenter’s grungy comedy Dark Star that might make cult fans giggle at exactly the wrong moment.
And about that title: yes, Ad Astra might well mean ‘to the stars’ in Latin but, commercially speaking, a less pompous name that doesn’t require Googling to understand was surely a better idea.
In the near future we meet Brad’s astronaut Roy McBride, an astronaut about 10 years younger than this star actually is who’s almost as famous for his family ties as for his ability to remain calm, with a low heart rate, in extremely stressful and dangerous situations. This comes in useful during the abrupt opening disaster sequence, but it’s also led to him being shut off emotionally, it would seem, which is why his wife Eve (Liv Tyler in glimpses) has left him.
When the world starts being hit by ‘The Surge’, a series of antimatter blasts that cause global chaos and devastation, Roy is sent on a highly classified mission first to the Moon, and then Mars, to hopefully communicate with the person it’s assumed responsible for what might eventually destroy the solar system. And it’s not really a spoiler, but the guy it’s thought might be perpetrating it is revealed as Roy’s long-lost Dad Clifford, somewhere near Neptune, who we see is played by Tommy Lee Jones initially in photographs and videos that almost beg the viewer to remember Apocalypse Now.
The Moon base is shown to look like it’s part mall/part aircraft hangar, and although no less than Donald Sutherland appears as Roy’s ‘security blanket’ Colonel Pruitt, he’s forgotten by the screenplay after an attack on the lunar surface by members of warring mining factions. Roy’s voiceover narration is especially ponderous at this point, and it’s also strange how this impressive sequence doesn’t really add anything to the narrative. It just sort of happens, possibly to keep Pitt groupies happy amid all the talk.
The Mars outpost appears to be a series of corridors straight out of a European subway station from the 1970s, and it’s here that the plot, and the whole movie, take several improbable turns and a few too many credibility gaps and script conveniences crop up. Furthermore, by about this halfway mark you’ll be desperate for just a jot of Brad’s trademark cocky humour, but no: it’s all tormented agonising, dark musings and more soulful staring than every Star Trek series combined.
Who exactly thought it was wise to cast this star and then have him barely crack a smile throughout? Compared to his hilarious recent turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood this looks even more of a bummer than it in fact is. Sure, he offers a performance that’s strong enough, full of understated confusion, melancholy and hurt, but we’ve seen this oh-so-conflicted character before, and handled better. And aren’t we all a little tired of blokes learning to feel and love yet again?
Ad Astra (M) is in cinemas now