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Outer Space, Inner Grace: A Review Of 'Ad Astra'

There’s stupendous cinematography, and solid acting by Brad Pitt in ‘Ad Astra’—but sadly, a narrative that takes on great themes and notions, but fails to deliver and keep the film entertaining. A case of Sad Astra?

Ad Astra came to the screens with some considerable hype; and it delivers on several of the aspects of the film that was lauded by critics and early viewers. But it also fails to live up to the hype in one crucial concern, that of being an engrossing, entertaining film. It was never touted to be some commercial high adventure in space epic; but even as the latest edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in outer space, it meanders and tries too hard explaining itself, and reminding us of the bigger themes it’s taken on.

On paper, it must have looked like a great project to embark on. James Gray is directing and co-wrote the film, and he’s fresh off the deservedly much praised but ignored The Lost City of Z. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones star as father and son astronauts, with major and complex issues between them. Cinematography is by Hoyte Van Hoytema, so we’re guaranteed breath-taking and powerful visuals. With the survival of Earth hanging in the balance, we can see how this drama will unfold, and how everything that can go wrong will, just to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride | 20th Century Fox

Well, that’s the promise; but unfortunately, the finished product leaves much to be desired—with possibly the one exception of Hoytema delivering on the truly wonderful cinematography. Space exploration, interplanetary travel, and even a vehicular chase on the moon’s surface—these all astound and have us marveling at the crispness, color (or lack of it), and vistas presented. 

In terms of world-building, the film provides us a near-future that has just enough to keep it from being outright science-fiction, yet with surprises that keep us on our toes in terms of taking the details and touches all in—like how there’s a DHL kiosk on the moon station, or the ever-changing walls of the room on Mars that Roy McBride (Pitt) stays in, while waiting for his father-son rendezvous. These all astound and add to the overall impression of this could very well be our future.

What I did find underwhelming is how so much was being made of the McBrides eventually facing each other; but when that scene finally happens, it’s like nothing really happens or is resolved in a satisfactory manner. And mind you, I do love indie films, wasn’t expecting some Interstellar or Armageddon confrontation; but this one was just too underplayed and qualified as disappointing. 

Thematically, I do admire what Gray was trying to achieve; and in films like Little Odessa, The Immigrant, and Lost City, we’ve seen how Gray will tackle these themes like a pit bull terrier, and not let go until he’s ready. But you’ve also got the keep the narrative flowing, have us invested in following the action and your protagonists. Here, we can appreciate the characters Brad and Tommy Lee inhabit, but at some point midway through the film, there’s just too much repetition and hammering of the points Gray wants to make. 

The Solaris remake of Steven Soderbergh, Sunshine of Danny Boyle, even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—these are all films set in space but with heavier themes also weaved into the narrative. Personally, I liked the way these filmmakers balanced the sci-fi elements with the bigger picture narrative they wanted to impart. Ad Astra is well-intentioned, sincere, and very personal, but it’s also a chore to sit through and enjoy.

Ad Astra is currently in theaters nationwide.