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I am forever driven on this quest.

Ad Astra
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Would Apocalypse Now have finished up as a classic if Captain Willard had been ordered on a mission to exterminate his mad dad with extreme prejudice, rather than a mysterious and off-reservation colonel? Ad Astra features many stunning elements. It’s an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking from James Gray, who establishes his tone from the get-go and keeps it consistent, even through various showy set pieces. But the decision to give its lead character an existential crisis entirely revolving around his absent father is its reductive, fatal flaw, ultimately deflating much of the air from Gray’s space balloon.

So by the end, Ad Astra looks somewhat limp and less than revelatory. Prior to the final leg of astronaut Major Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) journey, however, the picture largely succeeds on its own terms. Sure, Roy somehow passing his psych evaluation after equating a crazy baboon with his own inner, father-imbued rage is an early sign this isn’t quite going to be the trenchant meditative mission movie we’d hoped for. But generally, it’s rewarding, and the Malick-esque narration is fairly minimal and more effective for that.

Unfortunately, the prospect of meeting daddy (Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride) prises the lid off Roy’s supressed psyche, and by the time he’s on his solo voyage, regrets and memories are tumbling out, none of them very stimulating and, frankly, most of them tending to the anodyne (Liv Tyler is in the cast as his estranged wife, but she’s effectively a silent symbol of loss, rather than an actual part). The Neptune passage of the picture isn’t a complete bust, since it carries an austere beauty when Roy isn’t blethering on (notably, it took Voyager 2 twelve years to get there, so it looks like space travel comes on in leaps and bounds very soon). But by this point, it has become clear that Ad Astra’s destination won’t be inspiring anyone, philosophically, emotionally, or otherwise.

As such, meeting Clifford and finding he (a) hasn’t shaved his head and put on a hundred pounds and (b) most stridently has failed to meet up with any unfriendly aliens, isn’t remotely surprising. "I have infinite work to do" is about as unhinged as Clifford gets. The very fact that Gray is making a space picture all about family (he should have cast Vin Diesel) tells us that, at best, he’s going to be on a testosterone-inflected version of Contact, but more than likely that his feet are much too firmly planet on terra firma for any of that alien or cosmic-consciousness nonsense. The most psychedelic Gray gets is the nature images projected on the walls of Roy’s quarters on Mars.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t a number of fairly out-there moments along the way, such as Roy climbing aboard a rocket through the tailpipe moments before lift-off and not getting singed, and managing to bust his way through one of Neptune’s rings back to his ship on a chunk of space station hull, a stupendously unlikely feat (so much so, I initially thought he was going to surf for it, Dark Star style).

I wasn’t let down by Jones being fairly standard-issue Jones, then, or by the emotional crux of the piece being Clifford’s admission that he doesn’t give a hoot about Roy, and Roy’s that he does about his old man (such that, inevitably, he meaningfully makes contact with wifey again at the end, who of course, has been mooning around all this time waiting for her man rather than getting on with her life). Gray had already long-since backed himself into a corner, and suddenly veering off into Sunshine or Event Horizon territory – other lost-mission space movies – just wasn’t going to happen.

The chief problem with Gray’s concept is that, similarly to the way anything veering from the scientifically plausible here undermines the whole due to a presiding emphasis on a feasible future – whereas the same might go unnoticed in, say, Armageddon – the cosmic scale absolutely fails to offer a fitting contrast to Brad’s intimate journey. It might have, but the parameters set render it, well, not twee exactly, but humdrum, mundane and finally slightly trite. Gray’s previous picture The Lost City of Z was similar in some respects – exploration of the unknown, a focus on familial relationships – but more satisfying for its ambiguity. That’s likely a consequence of being an adaptation, and I suspect Gray would be wise to try directing something he hasn’t also written; his perspective as a creator of material is far less interesting than as an executor.

Still, Pitt provides a sterling performance throughout. The swagger of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be getting all the (early) Oscar talk, but he’s doing more interesting work here. The only problem I had was that the voiceover, particularly with its laboured and somewhat facile wrestling for meaning, smacked more and more of Malick-lite fare as it went on ("I don't know if I hope to find him, or finally be free of him"). Pitt’s in frame throughout the picture, and required to underplay in expressing Roy’s contained nature (as such, it also put me a little in mind of Ryan Gosling interiorised spaceman in last year’s First Man). Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga are also memorable, while Natasha Lyonne has a mystifyingly brief help-desk cameo.

Mostly, though, you’ll remember the man against the landscape, or starscape, and Pitt’s stoic face juxtaposed against his changing environment, and the sobriety of the limitless as captured by Max The Leftovers Richter’s sombre, contemplative score. Hoyte van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s now regular DP, creates a mission of immersive beauty, even when the surroundings are as spartan as those of the Mars colony. And when it comes to the bursts of action – an enervating Moon buggy chase (travel to the Moon comes via Virgin not-quite-Atlantic), the attack by the space baboon, McBride taking command of the Neptune rocket – the standard is as compelling and gripping as any action movie.

Which may be a backhanded compliment, since it’s been suggested that at least two of these, the first two, came by way of enforced reshoots overseen by Dan Bradley. I might have more of problem with such unceremonious interference with a vision – if indeed that’s what happened – if I thought the vision was a refined one in the first place (I see these sequences may have been in the screenplay, and I have to admit, wistfully adding Liv Tyler seems as likely a studio dictate as any of the amped-up action, as does giving Roy a hero’s welcome rather than ending on an ambiguous note).

Because if Ad Astra fails to fulfil its potential, that’s down to Gray’s patchy premise rather than anything in its translation to screen (minus a few generations, and add a splash of the metaphysical, and you aren’t so far from Coco). The shame of it is, this won’t make nearly enough money to justify a $100m price tag, and it’s difficult to see how anyone at Fox ever thought a slow-paced science-fiction yarn aimed at adult audiences would. Perhaps they thought it had Nolan-esque potential, but Nolan’s the only one who can make hits out of material with Nolan-esque potential. Unfortunately, the inevitable lack of an audience for Ad Astra will simply further confirm that all there is left for cinema goers are comic-book franchises and live-action remakes of cartoons. The only surprise should be that Ad Astra wasn’t a Netflix production. Give it time, and Gray will surely find himself heading their way. And they’ll welcome him with open arms.


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