My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. sometimes got on my case whenever I would refer to a particular film as 'pretentious'. Perhaps if he still lived, he would concede that Ad Astra is indeed 'pretentious'. Mistaking moroseness for meditative, Ad Astra has the positives of a lush score and some extraordinary visuals that I figure on a large screen are breathtaking. However, the film as a whole wallows in its own self-importance.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) whispers and monologues of his own misery which he keeps in check under a cold, remote manner. The son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), he is sent on a top-secret mission after "The Surge", a massive power surge/outage that has wrecked life on Earth. The military believes that "The Surge" was the result of the Lima Project, a search for extraterrestrial life that is stationed near Neptune.
Clifford McBride was the commander of the Lima Project, but has disappeared long ago. Fearing Clifford has turned into an intergalactic Colonel Kurtz, Roy is sent surreptitiously first to the Moon then to Mars before going in search of his father.
As he travels, he learns bits and pieces of the truth about both the Lima Project and Clifford from the men and women he encounters on the long journey. There's Clifford's frenemy Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), whose parents died as a result of the Lima Project.
At the military's request Roy records a message to reach his father, but in adding a personal touch they decide he isn't up to the task. Nevertheless, he goes rogue and stows away on the spaceship sent to exterminate Clifford, inadvertently killing the crew. Finally reaching Neptune, he sees his father and now finds his physical and perhaps metaphysical search at an end.
In the spirit of positiveness I will congratulate Ad Astra (Latin for 'to the stars') for having some wonderful elements within it. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is extraordinary, filled with rich and vibrant colors. I figure that the Neptune sequence on a large or IMAX screen would leave the viewer fully immersed in this universe. Max Richter's score also was exceptional, even if oftentimes it felt as if I were listening to a Music From the Hearts of Space broadcast where one is waiting for Steven Hill to pop up.
Visually, Ad Astra is arresting. Emotionally, it's as cold and chilly as deep space itself.
If there is one thing that I find quite irritating in films, its voiceover. Few films with voiceover work: Sunset Boulevard and Blade Runner come to mind. I think it is because more than a few films use voiceover to do the heavy lifting of story. A voiceover is sadly too often used to literally 'tell' versus 'show'. Worse, voiceover can hamper a film by locking in emotions that an actor should express in the performance itself.
That is already bad enough, but Ad Astra doubles down on that by having that voiceover by essentially whispering. I do not understand why so many filmmakers believe that whispering dialogue equals intense emotional insight. I'm suddenly reminded of The Tree of Life, another 'whispering dialogue means we are discussing deep things also starring Brad Pitt'.
As a side note, we hear in Pitt's monotone voiceover that "Stanford is frightened" when asked to go investigate a Mayday call before Roy volunteers to take his place. Why director/co-writer James Gray (writing with Ethan Gross) did not trust the actors to show such things in their performances versus having to literally tell us I don't know. I also don't know why Gray opted to make even action scenes like a Moon chase so quiet. Add to that how the film wants us to feel for someone's death when we barely met him, giving us only the trope of 'family picture' to make any kind of emotional connection when the film drowns in somberness.
This kind of quietness pushes Ad Astra down. I don't trust these types of deliberately self-aware esoteric films, so ponderous and serious where no one appears to be human.
The performances were all quiet, so there was a sameness to them that made it hard to see individuals than people. To be fair in their brief scenes Sutherland and Negga did well, and Pitt gave a correct performance of someone emotionally tight and remote. However, did everyone else need to be that distant?
Ad Astra really is a curious blending of Apocalypse Now with some Planet of the Apes (at least in one sequence where things perked up) and a dash of Major Tom (that would be the Tommy Lee Jones character). After Roy accidentally causes the deaths of the space crew, we hear that the journey to Neptune will take "79 days, 4 hours".
That might have described Ad Astra's running time.