My first thought on Ad Astra, expressed in a tweet … how can a film with moon pirates and killer space monkeys be so dull?
Here are some slightly more considered notes.
Ad Astra – which director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) co-wrote with Ethan Gross (four episodes of Fringe) – finds Brad Pitt in slow, solemn, introspective mode. Sometimes, the star’s sleepy-seeming demeanour can really work – he’s terrific in Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, and he’s made relatively few easy crowd-pleasers in his career. This time, he just gets into the somnolent rhythm of an already-slow film, which he narrates in a monotone calculated to make even a high-orbit plunge to earth from an exploding ‘space antenna’ humdrum. It’s the Pitt of Meet Joe Black, an earnest take on what ought to have been whimiscal. This is typical of what happens when intelligent, well-meaning filmmakers who’d never deign to read a real science fiction novel decide to make an outer space movie. You know that every strut and helmet and tube has been researched and designed with precision, but no one has bothered to ask why a film called ‘to the stars’ is set entirely in our own solar system … or complained that in lieu of a plot this has just mashed together the scripts of 2001 A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now but leached them of the visionary madness and urge for transcendence that makes them work decades after their release. This is a film, by contrast, I’ll have a struggle recalling next week.
On top of that, Gray somehow believes that the universe needs another film about Daddy issues – as Roy McBride (Pitt) is packed off on a makes-no-sense planet-hopping mission to communicate with his long-lost father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is out around Neptune with a supposed mission to search for extra-terrestrial life (as if there weren’t other perfectly valid reasons for visiting the outer planets) and may be responsible for a blurrily-conceived zapping device that it EMPing the Earth (and presumably the moon) on a semiregular basis rather like the space rays from 2010.
The deal is that Roy is at first a passive traveller, a patsy whose bosses won’t share the whole story with … so it has to be doled out in increments by high-quality guest stars Donald Sutherland (trading on his astronaut history with Jones in Space Cowboys?) and Ruth Negga (as, seemingly, the Queen Administrator of Mars). As in Apocalypse Now, there are set-piece distractions along the way – which AN screenwriter likened to the perils of Ulysses in the Odyssey, yoking in Kubrick’s inspiration too – as we get an astro-car chase with pirates on the moon who might have been stranded on the satellite by the box office failures of Moon Zero Two and The Adventures of Pluto Nash … followed by a rescue mission to a space lab overrun by mad experimental animals but inexplicably lacking in the corpses of the scientists they’re supposed to have killed … then a long haul flight from Mars to Neptune, which Roy gets on at the last minute in a sequence less credible than Indy riding on the outside of the submarine. This affords opportunities for more introspection, brooding and contemplation not of the infinite but of the old favourite screenwriters’ song of Why Did Daddy Leave?
Liv Tyler literally phones in three lines as Roy’s ex-wife, Natasha Lyonne is in there somewhere, Greg Bryk (with sinister manbun) takes the Space Character Name of the Year Award as ‘Chip Garnes’, Loren Dean makes it the third Space Cowboys alumnus (there he was a SCNotY nominee as ‘Ethan Glance’) as a character potentially more interesting than the lead (an overpromoted second in command quietly terrified of everything about space).