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Ad Astra review: Falls short of the stars

Every few years it seems we get a near future soft sci-fi movie, and in 2019 it’s the turn of Brad Pitt and director James Gray in Ad Astra.

In said near future humans have shot past the moon and explored a bit more of our solar system. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who takes off into the stars in search of his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer space explorer who has gone further than any other man and was officially missing for years.

A cataclysmic event necessitates that Pitt’s character hops on the first space shuttle off planet, and we have a movie.

Sounds interesting, right? Ad Astra’s initial premise and presentation is its strongest point, but unfortunately everything around that (including its story) is much weaker and less interesting, starting with the main character.

You may not sense it from the trailers on this page and other marketing materials, but Ad Astra is more of a character study of Roy McBride, and we’d say 80% or more of the screen time is Pitt staring forlornly into the camera, complete with his voice over touching on everything from fatherhood to zero gravity-induced psychosis.

Again, that sounds good on paper, but it’s not that compelling once it’s on the screen. A big reason for this isn’t Pitt himself, but rather his character Roy McBride.

In the movie much ado is made about Roy McBride’s calmness under pressure, and various characters and machines repeatedly fill us in on his heartbeat. Apparently Roy McBride is such a badass that he doesn’t get jittery when falling out of the atmosphere as you see in the trailers.

If you’re thinking “wouldn’t it be boring to spend so much time with a character whose defining trait is being calm and unflinching” well then bingo buddy because that’s the exact problem here. Don’t let the smiling thumbnail of the first trailer above trick you, Roy McBride is one of the most stoic, stone faced brick’s we’ve seen on film in years.

This can, however, be used in a movie’s favour. It’s something of a speciality of Ryan Gosling and we saw this exact type of character in Blade Runner 2049. Aside from Gosling’s character in that movie being a literal robot, the difference between these two is that Gosling had better characters and action around him, and less time was spent on what he was doing and the result of his weird psyche tests.

Amazingly, in Ad Astra Roy McBride also has to undergo several automated psychology tests very similar to the ones in Blade Runner 2049.

To the credit of Pitt and the writers here, the Roy McBride character does have some good moments and its admirable the way he pulls off being a mix of astronaut and soldier, best shown in the moon buggy scene which you can see part of it the clip further down.

While there are moments of character breakthrough and change, they’re so obvious and take so long to materialise that you feel rather numb by the time they happen.

The rest of the cast, which has very limited screentime here, is serviceable. The one stand out is Tommy Lee Jones who isn’t on screen much, but is convincingly imposing when he is.

There’s no way to elaborate on that without spoiling the main twist of the movie, but Clifford McBride is arguably the most interesting and best presented character in the movie, and we kind of wish the entire story was about him instead.

As the story of this movie is so closely tied to Pitt’s character, both suffer as, when the credits roll, the whole ordeal just feels kind of pointless.

Some of the psychological aspects of the movie are interesting, and this is listed as a drama, but most of it will leave you wanting and it all comes across as a bit too mopey.

Thankfully the visual design on offer here picks up some of the slack. The technology used by humanity to make it further into space looks very similar to space faring tech that we see now. There’s no crazy spaceships or gravity machines or anything like that (except for one which is important to the story), so everything feels grounded and realistic enough to be convincing.

The CG elements are almost flawless here and it is a pretty movie, despite the fact that it’s obviously trying too hard in certain scenes. By that we mean that those in charge of the set design really wanted certain parts to be as aesthetic as possible, resulting in many locations looking more like abstract art pieces instead of any actual space that a human being would inhabit.

A prime example is a colony set on another planet, which looks like an underground parking lot inhabited by about two light bulbs and decorated by a club that would be visited by the Stefon character from Saturday Night Live.

In return for these moments of goofiness, you do get some visual realisation of really interesting, hopeful ideas. Again, we don’t want to spoil anything, but commercial space flights and moon pirates are on offer here and it’s maybe the best part of this movie.

While the music on offer is okay, there’s just nothing outstanding here. Okay, we’re now going to use our one allotted “comparison to Interstellar” card here. Ad Astra just doesn’t have the memorable tunes that helped cement parts of that music in people’s minds for years.

On top of that the sound design is just kind of expected. Yes, there’s an accident in space and the loud clangs of metal and explosions are juxtaposed by the silence of the vacuum. This and other things we’ve seen and heard before and it’s just old hat at this point, leaving us wanting something more.

And that’s the main takeaway of this movie, once all the parts have come together and you’re sitting in the credits. Ad Astra lacks some X factor, something to make it special and memorable. Maybe another character, maybe a different score, maybe a few twists in the story. Something, anything to elevate or change it for a different flavour would have been appreciated.

As is Ad Astra is an interesting enough movie for this seemingly growing subgenre, but we doubt it will have any lasting legacy or incentive to be picked up and watched a few years from now.

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