Despite Brad Pitt’s powerhouse performance, “Ad Astra” can’t lift itself above the hardly-exciting pace and its predictable narrative.
When it comes to cinema, slow doesn’t necessarily mean bad or boring. Some directors pull off movies with a little sense of moving forward, but that often happens thanks to leveraging an audiovisual sensation. Some would probably call Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” a proud member of this elite group.
But where slow films often fail is the lack of emotional engine. And James Gray’s “Ad Astra” swings dangerously close to this area of why should I care template.
Fly me to the moon
The plot finds an ambitious astronaut Roy McBride undertake a suicidal mission to find his estranged father. The elder McBride was an exemplary pioneer who never came back home from his space assignment. Roy’s time is limited though, as his father’s actions put the entire universe at risk.
Even before watching “Ad Astra”, I feared the premise of the world’s bane, counted by a ticking clock, felt highly toxic to Gray. Judging by the slimy pace of “The Lost City of Z”, I had serious doubts he could handle an “Interstellar” type of narrative. This romantic one-against-the-universe pattern finds its way around way too often, but in the case of “Ad Astra” that the ticking clock’s never really present.
Gray orders McBride to travel light years, only to make him succumb to the fading hope of finding his dad. His journey, though exhilarating visually, has little of palpable tension that’s promised by the plot. Pitt moves from place to place, spends a lot of time contemplating and reminiscing his father. Such a narrative quickly reshapes “Ad Astra” into a psychological drama, but the whole planet can’t really fit in that cramped space between Pitt and Jones. And there lies a problem – billions of lives are presumably at stake, but you won’t remember that after an hour of runtime.
Brad Pitt’s heavy-weighted shoulders
If it wasn’t for Pitt, “Ad Astra” wouldn’t get enough fuel to make the whole trip. Pitt embraces the peaceful, weighted characters more and more often (“Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood”), but only in Gray’s by-degrees narrative, does he spread wings entirely. Pitt’s mixture of vendetta and longing make McBride a relatable character, and one you want to succeed. Even despite the tediousness of his mission.
It’s also difficult to talk about other brief performances – Ruth Negga’s, Tommy Lee Jones’ or Donald Sutherland’s. As is often the case with Nicolas Winding Refn, Gray too tends to see nothing apart from his protagonist.
On the more bright side, one can’t deny James Gray a gift of world-building, that goes far beyond the whirring of space ships.
The vision of a futuristic world is broken down to ridiculous details – like an overpriced blanket bought by Roy during the flight to the moon. As he did in “The Lost City of Z”, Gray constructs a meticulous architecture, one that feels palpably real. That also points to “Ad Astra’s” breathtaking cinematography. An instant classic is a scene of a pursuit on the moon, where the luminous spacesuits and blueish greys become a ground for an exhilarating piece of action-packed go-get-him race.
If “Ad Astra” was made before films like “Gravity”, “Moon” or “Interstellar”, it would probably deserve a standing applaud. Yet Gray discovers no new planets or spaces within the genre he experiments with. For the sake of the gorgeous visuals and Brad Pitt’s work, I’d still keep it a recommended choice alas one that will bore a considerate portion of viewers.
Ad Astra (2019) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
While it certainly makes exhilarating stops over its two-hours runtime, “Ad Astra” is a tiresome trip, which oscillates around worn-out topics.
Dir. James Gray
Hate Grade: 4/10