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Ad Astra


‘…the build up is more effective that the take-away, which isn’t quite as rich or developed as the quest…’

The title means ‘to the stars’; James Gray’s Ad Astra is probably the director’s best film to date, a sprawling road movie that infolds in deep space, a film that’s huge in scope yet offers tight personal focus. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) recovers quickly from a substantial fall caused by a cosmic blast, and is recruited to travel from the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then to one further destination, some 21 billion miles from home. What is he searching for? A source of energy that threatens the world as we know it is the familiar answer.

Once he’s overcome such original obstacles as deadly space monkeys and lazer-gun toting pirates, McBride arrives the remnants of previous mission the Lima project, which seems to be the source of the potentially world-ending energy. This is a familiar Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now ‘falling apart as we go up the river’ scenario, simplified but not minimalized by having the Lima under the control of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is also Roy’s father.

Roy’s emotional reaction to universe-changing yet private events is closely monitored, and there’s a specific moral about the nature of emotion; Ad Astra is a thoughtful film in the vein of Interstellar or Solaris, but has the visual pizazz and appeal of Gravity. The support is impressive too, with Donald Sutherland along for the ride, and an amusing one-and-done scene from Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra also has an unsatisfying conclusion; the build up is more effective that the take-away, which isn’t quite as rich or developed as the quest, although that may be part of the point. As in his Oscar-winning turn in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Pitt excels as a man out of time, and out of step with the world around him. But he also exudes a noble professionalism that makes Roy McBride a classic cinematic hero, and the set pieces, particularly an assault on a departing spacecraft, are intense to watch. A technical marvel, Ad Astra is a brooding sci-fi drama that fights to be more than the sum of its carefully wrought parts.


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  1. I reviewed this when it came out, and was very impressed by its visual direction, but yeah, as a whole, I don’t think all of its parts add up from a story perspective, which is something that really sticks out to me two years later that I didn’t find that big of a deal when it came out. I think a lot of this has to do to the fact that my film diet has changed — since 2019, I’ve slowly stepped away from the junk food that is wide-released theater movies and have been spoiled by a ton of more creative, subversive works on streaming.

    But I do remember the comical moon rover chase scene in this film. Idk why it sticks out to me, but there is something just very funny about seeing a big budget film that supposedly takes place in the future try to present a serious chase scene on space rovers that looks like they’re from the 70s.

    • I had to to re-write my review, which one the day of viewing was more positive. There’s something about this film that doesn’t stick, and perhaps it’s the way that crowd-pleasing action scenes are shoe-horned into a more meditative film. Pitt’s great, but the film’s action is a bit Flash Gordon, which doesn’t sit with the big searching for meaning theme…

  2. I saw this twice when it came out so that I could enjoy the performances without being distracted by the story and the various mis-endings that you point out and second time round i was even more impressed with Pitt and the fact that he taken it on when he knew fine well it was not going to blast open the multiplexes, that it wasn’t an Intersteller or anything like, but a thoughful picture.

  3. The music and visuals are quite good but everything else seems seriously misjudged and confused. I noted at the time that the film has seventeen producers, co-producers and executive producers – which is generally a bad thing if they all have a say. You don’t mention that it is a Chinese co-production and I think there was a mismatch between James Gray’s ‘indie’, sensibility, expectations of Pitt as star and possible Chinese expectations of an IMAX movie.

    Most of the great science fiction films are based on novels or short stories written by people who know science and/or hard science fiction. I give you Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the more recent Arrival as the best of sf cinema. This is just tosh, a ‘space adventure’ and therefore ‘sci-fi’ with a typical American father-son narrative.

    • Totally agree about Arrival and Solaris. And I think you’re right that is ends up an adventure movie rather than sci-fi. But I can’t deny that the overwhelming visuals carried me along for a good part of the film. A more provocative take on the father-son relationship might have helped; in retrospect, the ending seems corny and unsatisfying to me. I had to go back and revise my original review because it lacks the extra dimension that films like Arrival have. As you suggest, two many cooks may be a problem in terms of the concept…

  4. I meant to see this back in the day, and had I read your review then I think I would have, but most of the reviews I read were similar to Gregs’s and I didn’t bother in the end. Maybe one day just to see for myself.

  5. We reviewed this movie back in 2019 at Here are a few thoughts I had at the time…

    “Ad Astra suffers from many ills, … this film seems more like an ‘atonement with the father’ epic penned by a screenwriter with unresolved daddy issues. I can barely find anything to appreciate about this long-winded, shortsighted film.”

    “I got the feeling Pitt is trying to ride the coattails of the much better The Martian. But without all that sciencey nonsense.”

    “And the message that we often don’t see the forest for the trees is delivered at the last minute without much support from the rest of the film”

    It’s like you and I had the same review of Ad Astra, but completely different opinions.

    • That is interesting, I’ll chase down your review. I’d reviewed this film on the day of the press show, and the review had dated badly, so I revamped it. I really dug the details, and I can see how it might relate to The Martian. But the take-away has fallen flat for me since I first saw it, so maybe I’ll take another look. There’s an old critical phrase ‘this elephant of a film gives birth to a mouse of an idea’, maybe that would work for both of us…thanks for the comment!

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