The Backlog: AD ASTRA

Welcome to the Backlog! A series where I post untimely reviews of movies that I have seen over the past year or so.

The enemy up here is not a person or a thing. It’s the endless void.

There’s a famous line from Parks and Recreation that floated to my mind when I left the theatre after seeing James Gray’s new space saga Ad Astra, which captures the major issue with the film:

Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.

Throughout the two hour runtime, multiple threads get pulled out and abandoned for no reason. One plot thread is the spy thriller about Space Command (Donald Sutherland! Secret Chips on necklaces!), there’s a riveting space adventure story (FUCKING MOON PIRATES! RABID BABOONS!),and then there’s a deep, ponderous movie about deconstructing one man’s cold exterior as he moves to the outer limits of our solar system. There’s even a love story sprinkled in. 

That’s too many threads to pull out and not weave together. If Ad Astra focused on any one of those stories, this would have been a good movie. For instance, if this had been primarily about Roy’s Heart of Darkness voyage in space, that would have been great. A man lacking humanity becomes humanity’s savior as he takes the long journey out to the farthest reaches of our solar system. But we only got half of that movie. 

Space Pirates would have been a better movie.
If only we got more of this movie / Ad Astra, retrieved June 8, 2020 from screenrant.com

First, let’s start with the good. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones put in excellent acting performances. The space cinematography is stellar. From the blue marble hanging above the moon, to the Sepheus moving across the stormy surface of Jupiter, to the Lima Project orbiting Neptune: all absolutely stunning. I loved looking at it. Space is fantastic. 

Even with all the beauty on screen, Ad Astra is dragged down by slow pacing and which is aggravated by the monotonous voiceover accompanying the film. 

For a movie clearing inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, it really took some of the wrong lessons from that movie. The good things about 2001 are not when Bowman is floating through space, breathing heavily as he drifts. Yet James Gray continually shows us Brad Pitt laboring through this world, everything a struggle for him. A slow swim through a sewer. A slow climb down an antennae, a slow climb up a rocket, a slow walk down a hallway before slowing walking down another hallway. There is only so much struggling I can watch before the movie itself becomes a struggle. 

Piling onto those pacing issues is the voice-over, which is the biggest sin in the movie. The story already has a device to get inside Roy’s thinking: the psych evaluations. Why have the psych evaluation in the entire movie at key intervals if you aren’t going to use it to reveal what is on Brad Pitt’s mind? One quick fix is to take 50% of the voice-over lines and instead reveal them during the pysch evals. Have the computer ask a follow up question that forces Pitt to open a window into his mind. Then there is some dramatic tension when we wonder how much is him posturing for the eval and how much of it is actually true.

Ad Astra is an odyssey, an ambitious attempt to become the next epic but, like its isolated daddy, is a failure. This movie drags so hard.

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