The Venice Film Festival has launched three of Hollywood’s most thoughtful space-travel movies recently, with last year’s First Man following Arrival and Gravity. This year, it’s the turn of Ad Astra, written and directed by James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, astronaut extraordinaire. Ad Astra is almost as intelligent as those other films, but it shares too much of their imagery to seem entirely original. And, like them, it veers towards questions of parenthood and loss, a trajectory that is starting to become irritating. Isn’t anyone allowed to journey to the final frontier without getting choked up about their relatives along the way?
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The personal issues are handled less elegantly in Ad Astra than in the other films, too. In theory, Pitt’s character is similar to Neil Armstrong, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling in First Man, in that his piloting abilities are dependent on his iron control of his feelings. The difference is that Gosling conveyed that stoicism by being, well, stoic, whereas Pitt conveys it by going on and on about how stoic he is, both in the voice-overs that recur throughout, and the psych-evaluation reports he recites to his computer whenever he is about to go on another mission. Meanwhile, Liv Tyler pops up in a tiny, clichéd cameo as the angelic wife who Roy has neglected. The setting may be the near future, but roles such as that one are out of date.
What follows is, essentially, a Buck Rogers-style yarn, complete with crash-landings and shoot-outs
If you overlook some of the soppy psycho-babble, though, Ad Astra is a rewarding combination of pulpy B-movie and ominous, atmospheric drama. It begins as Roy is knocked off a mile-high antenna by a power surge. According to Nasa’s top brass, this was one of the many power surges caused by cosmic rays zapping us from the other end of the solar system. And the origin of these cosmic rays is a space station that was once manned by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones).
As far as anyone knows, McBride Sr died 13 years earlier. But what if he didn’t? What if he’s still out there, orbiting Neptune, like an interstellar descendant of Colonel Kurtz or Ben Gunn? Roy doesn’t ask his superiors why they think the old man might still be alive, and nobody bothers to tell him – Gunn’s screenplay is frustratingly vague about such matters – but he is sent off into the unknown, just in case, to try to contact his long-lost dad.
What follows is, essentially, a Buck Rogers-style yarn, complete with crash-landings, shoot-outs, zero-gravity brawls, a savage predator hiding in a seemingly abandoned craft, and a car chase on the Moon (and you don’t see those very often). It’s rollicking stuff, but Gray keeps the mood sombre and the science just about plausible. There is no hyperdrive and no teleporting, for instance, so if you want to go on a billion-mile trip, it’s going to take you a very long time indeed. Reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the film is at its most captivating when it shows how dark and desolate existence can be as you move farther away from the sun. Once you’re in space, you are in a truly alien environment, even if you don’t meet any aliens.
Then, alas, Roy's self-pitying voiceover returns, and brings everything back to earth. Ad Astra is enjoyable as a two-fisted action movie and as a hard sci-fi rumination. But, weighed down as it is by emotional baggage, it doesn’t quite get to the stars.
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