Directed by James Grey–known for The Lost City of Z and The Immigrant–with a budget of approximately $80 million that secured A-lister Brad Pitt, Ad Astra seemed poised to be the next iteration of Interstellar or Gravity, both of which became blockbusters and garnered critical acclaim. Rather than appearing as another bright star in the orbit of cinematic giants, Ad Astra cowers in the shadow of its space-bound predecessors.
Ad Astra is a science fiction movie set in the future where a man must travel across the solar system to find his missing father whose experiments threaten all of humanity. On the surface, the plot sounds elementary, like some great adventure pulled from the writers table of a fantastical kid’s cartoon like Phineas and Ferb or SpongeBob. In an era where Hollywood seems more averse to original ideas and every studio is scrambling to set up its own cinematic universe, however, a standalone original like Ad Astra is certainly a breath of fresh air for moviegoers.
The film opens with the main character Roy McBride (Pitt) surviving a near death experience in which he falls from an antenna in space. He soon learns the cause of his accident was a power surge across the solar system that originated on Neptune, where Roy’s father disappeared several years prior while on a mission to find extraterrestrial life. Believing that Roy’s father may be alive and responsible for the power surges, Roy is sent to try and establish contact with his father in hopes of stopping him.
The film is evidently a personal journey, and the cinematography uses many shots set from Roy’s own point of view to emphasize this narrative. The film appears to take visual inspiration from other contemporary science fiction movies such as Blade Runner 2049 and Interstellar.
Actors’ performances were consistently strong. Sound design attempted to add to the sense of void and loneliness that accompanies Roy on his emotional journey. Max Richter, who composed the soundtrack for HBO’s The Leftovers, balances this aspiration with various additions for an overall unremarkable soundtrack that pales in comparison to that of fellow space-faring film Interstellar.
The movie’s slow pace is, at times, frustrating for a modern audience, but it works to create immersion around long bouts of nothingness in space. While there is a distinct minimalist aesthetic to the bleak surroundings and sparse music, the themes Ad Astra attempts to tackle are bold.
Ad Astra is clearly a movie about many lofty universal topics: loneliness, religion, and family, to name a few. To take on these themes in a measured and authentic manner would be a feat, but Ad Astra stumbled in its juggling of all of these themes—on occasion, these themes appeared disconnected and half-baked.
This fumble is only aggravated by the lack of delivery regarding the thriller’s plot: The movie’s climax felt quite rushed and the main crux of the story is also not explained adequately so as to give the film the emotional weight it had the potential to carry.
While the movie presents a break from the mind-numbing amount of sequels taking up camp in theaters, Ad Astra ultimately serves as a reminder that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the cinematic universe. It lacks in emotion and thrills, and abounds in striking, albeit self-indulgent visuals in the absence of meaning to fill the movie’s cavernous void.
Featured Image by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures