AD ASTRA: Yep, that's all there is
“Ad Astra” isn’t nearly as good as I thought it would be.
Heavily hyped on social media for the past several weeks, the new space opera starring Brad Pitt is handsome, interesting and well acted; but it’s hampered by a somewhat slow pace -- and pretty much ruined by a disappointing finale.
Actually, until the closing segments near Neptune, I was enjoying the film quite a bit. Pitt gives one of his strongest performances; the visuals are first-rate; and the handful of action scenes carry a surprisingly muscular tension and scope -- because they are all underplayed: quiet, slow and low key, they have a certain grandeur, a stateliness, at times almost a beauty that sets them apart from other modern-day action set-pieces.
Best of all is the narrative hook, with Pitt playing the son of an astronaut-hero whose long-ago mission went mysteriously awry and who has not been heard from since. Then suddenly, some sort of anti-matter flare-ups start happening throughout the solar system, and they seem to be originating from this vanished Luna project -- which may not be so long-lost after all. Unless the space program gets out there to nail down what’s happening and stop it, the anti-matter problem could wipe out the entire solar system. So naturally Pitt’s Major McBride is the man for the job.
Or is he?
Famously stolid and unemotional -- his pulse has never risen over 80, not even while making an accidental free-fall from space to earth -- McBride is disconcerted as he struggles to work through the old familial wound of an absent father.
So with a personal parent-child dynamic, a space-borne mystery and the fate of mankind hanging in the balance, the plot has plenty to keep it moving, despite the film’s step-by-step pacing.
But … when you have a cosmic enigma of this sort, you’d better have an interesting solution.
“Ad Astra” doesn’t.
Worse yet, it never really resolves the father-son conflict (despite some fine work from both Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones as Dad). I remain mystified as to the motives behind several late-film decisions. And worse yet, this otherwise level-headed tale tosses physics right out the airlock at the end; what happens with McBride in the rings of Neptune is so preposterous that I could not get even remotely interested in his plight. (Also jettisoned here is any sense of consequence for what McBride did in stowing away aboard the final mission.)
Topping it all off is the film’s philosophical resolution about human connection and interdependence -- ideas which are laudable, but hardly worth a costly 124-minute movie.
“Is that all there is?” may be a theme the film-makers aimed for, but it’s not a feeling one wants to have when leaving the theater.
directed by James Gray
Run time: 124 min.
* * (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for language and violence