Translated from latin, Ad Astra means “to the stars” and that’s exactly what we get here. It’s a cerebral movie, a little out of place in the wake of summer blockbusters, but Brad Pitt’s name alone will help to get people in the seats. But now the bigger question is… Is it good?
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, living in the shadow of his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). His father took an expedition all the way to Neptune, to try and send signals into space, to hopefully find intelligent life. Well, that was 16 years ago and Roy’s father is supposedly dead. Well, a shockwave hits the Earth (our opening sequence of the film) and it’s revealed that Roy’s father may have something to do with it, so Roy is sent on a mission to the Moon, then to Mars, to try and send a message to his father and stop these increasingly violent shockwaves. Other significant parts are played by Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga (Loving, Preacher, Agents of SHIELD).
This is a quest movie, in structure, as Roy has an end goal in mind but it takes him to the far reaches of spaces. We get foreign locales such as the commercialized airports of the Moon (complete with Yoshinoya) and the deadly landscapes of Mars. Each stop on his way is dangerous in its own way, as he’s confronted with human threats, natural threats, and even some other violent and deadly threats. It’s a simple movie in structure.
Where the movie succeeds is its art direction. These locations are all unique, fleshed out and realistic. There are small cramped spaces and there are wide open expanses of space. The movie is shot beautifully, taking its time with these long shots. It feels like an arthouse film, slow and purposeful but not always well-paced. Director James Gray has a few minor hits under his belt but nothing like this, and it shows. If you go to this movie with the idea that you want a slow and beautiful movie about an astronaut with major daddy issues, you’ll find exactly that.
Ad Astra is anchored by Brad Pitt’s incredible performance. He’s a huge name but people often overlook the fact that he’s earned that status. Ad Astra won’t be at the top of his list of best films but his performance in it is perfect.
What didn’t work?
The biggest complaint (and justifiably so) is the pacing of this film, sometimes slowing to an absolute crawl. There’s danger and immediacy at times, then other times it’ll just linger on a scene, likely because James Gray saw something beautiful about it. There’s a balance to be found, to not undercut the film’s tension, and I don’t know if they found that balance here.
I also struggle with the climax of the movie, the last stop on his adventure. I won’t go into too much depth but I expected the climax to be something subversive or vague, something that will leave you debating what happened or arguing over its meaning. The two hours leading up to the finale felt mysterious but we ultimately got a very clear and cookie-cutter climax, like something from a mainstream blockbuster. I expected more and was a bit let down by the climax.
So when the movie is slow and the climax isn’t really satisfying, you can understand why this movie drops a few pegs.
Brad Pitt holds this movie together, giving a beautiful and thoughtful performance. The movie as a whole, however, struggles to gain much momentum, crawling along at a snail’s pace and delivering an ending that felt like it was from another film. Those of you with an eye for cinematography and art direction will find plenty to like, but most casual audiences won’t have the patience for it.