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Movie Review: The Stars Shine, But "Ad Astra", Doesn't Take Us Anywhere New

Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross
Directed by James Gray

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs
   Out of Four

Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) has been very upfront about the influence of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on his film, Ad Astra, a space drama set in the not too distant future. But he seems so intent on creating his own Apocalypse Now that he should have gone ahead and just calyoled this movie Apocalypse Later.

Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox
While working on a massive antennae area high above the earth, Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is nearly killed when  a mysterious power surge in space causes him to fall off the array and through the atmosphere, performing a spectacular HALO jump.  recruited on a special mission to travel to mission to Neptune to hunt down his father, a legendary astronaut named Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones.). It seems that 30 years prior to the events in the film, the elder McBride led Earth’s first voyage into deep space on a mission known as the Lima Project. Sixteen years into the mission, the ship, along with everyone on it, disappeared;  But the power surge that disabled the space antenna was part of a larger destructive surge that’s now threatening the stability of the solar system, and it originates from the region around Neptune.

Could Clifford still be alive? And if so, what is going on out there? Roy is tasked with sending a message to his father, with the hope that the old man will respond.

Ad Astra presents an intriguing premise, well acted and directed with a keen eye and strong sense of (no pun intended) atmosphere. It also features some nicely staged action/suspense sequences, though it's certainly not an action movie. But from Pitt's sullen voice over narration to steady stream of picturesque images, it's impossible for a true cinephile not to be distracted by how preoccupied Gray is with his love for Coppola's experimental masterpiece. And that really leads to the movie's downfall, because taken on its own merits, it's a solid if uninspired sci-fi adventure drama. But the director clearly wants to be a lot more, and frankly, it just isn't.

The number of standout films set in space in recent memory gives us further reason to focus on what this movie isn't rather than what it is, and it's not as exciting Gravity, as mesmerising as Interstellar and certainly not as funny or life affirming as The Martian. And we won't even get started on how it pales in comparison to last year's most underrated classic, First Man.

Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox
On the plus side, Pitt really does a wonderful job of anchoring the film in the quiet melancholy of his performance. Pitt is engaging with every moment that he is on screen, and the voice over isn't even needed: he expresses his most complex thoughts and feelings without using words, while keeping it very low key at all times. The movie is a strong testament to his maturity as an actor, and Tommy Lee Jones as his father could not be a better piece of casting. That plus the effects and the work of Hoyte Van Hoyteyamma (Interstellar, SPECTRE, Dunkirk) as cinematographer make it a worthwhile movie going experience, and director Gray's enthusiasm for the project is at times infectious.  But while many of the fellow critics I saw it with felt like they needed to let it digest, I felt that the themes of the film and the basic takeaway were presented in a manner that was far too on the nose and even summarised out right in the dialogue.

It's not that Ad Astra is a bad movie, it's just not nearly as good as it wants to be. But it's still ambitious and visually pleasing, and if don't mind slow, deliberate pacing and have a passion for the space program, that's enough to make it worth seeing in IMAX.  Just don't expect it to stay with you for long after the credits are over.

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