Skip to main content

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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.