Ad Astra

asastra1Ad Astra is really two different movies, and I liked one of them, and didn’t care much for the other. The one is a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also Contact– it  wonderfully uses cinema as a visual medium to show us the immensity of the cosmos, and our place in it. It shows us a cosmos wholly indifferent to the human race and how the very immensity of it can challenge our sanity, our sense of reason. It asks the question ‘is there life Out There?’ and suggests a possible answer, and examines what that might mean to us, our place and importance in the immensity of space and time.

The second film is about pirates on the moon and carnivorous apes running amok on deserted space stations, and boys looking for their fathers when their fathers aren’t interested.  Its a Captain Nemo In Space film about as hokey as it was in The Black Hole.

If you can sense there’s a dichotomy there then you can understand my very mixed feelings about this film. We don’t get enough serious science fiction films, and we don’t get serious money and talent invested on space sagas in which we travel into the depths of space with real-space physics and no sound depicted in space (oh God I’m so thrilled at just that alone). Films like 2001 and Interstellar and Solaris are very rare, and even the rather flawed ones like Event Horizon or Sunshine are to be applauded, just for existing.  I’m thankful we even have Ad Astra, and kudos to 20th Century Fox bankrolling it, taking a risk on it. So much about Ad Astra is perfect, so much of it is so damned exhilarating, that it just feels so incredibly frustrating too.

When I saw advance word describing the film as Apocalypse Now meets 2001, I thought it was a bit of a wheeze, maybe a shorthand way, as Internet writers and YouTube reviewers often have it, in describing its sense of a journey across the solar system. I didn’t understand that this film literally is Apocalypse Now meets 2001. I suppose to be more charitable, I should describe it as Heart of Darkness meets 2001, but director James Gray is too on the nose with a narration that is so indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic that it feels like they should have had Martin Sheen voice it. Surely they could have dropped it, or most of it. Initially its interesting but it becomes far too indulgent and distracting.

adastra3Its also far too obvious, almost as bad as the clumsy narration that Blade Runner had, its so relentlessly describing whats happening and why and what Brad Pitt’s internal thoughts are about everything around him. Coppola’s film had a narration that was perfect, but that’s such a rarity and you have to be careful going there, especially if your basic narrative is also so indebted to its source. It was so obvious, I half-expected Tommy Lee Jones to mutter “The horror! The horror!” as he stared up at the stars. It shouldn’t have been so literal, and it also backs the film into the same quandary that drove Coppola nearly mad making Apocalypse Now– when we finally reach Kurtz, whats the revelation? Whats the endpoint, the grand insight that the previous few hours of film have been leading to? If you’re building up the mystery, you have to have a suitable answer, even if its just wrapped around another question. Gray ends Ad Astra with a mind-numbing revelation akin to ‘home is where the heart is’, and almost even that hoary chestnut ‘love conquers all’ – that’s fine, but helplessly anticlimactic after all the build-up.  Perhaps Ad Astra is too measured, too collected to really warrant the comparisons to Coppola’s hallucinatory trip up the river. Perhaps it needed more product placement, a way of ramming home its suggestion of commercialisation dumbing down what space is, what it means- we can’t have Coppola’s drugs in space, but maybe more Coca Cola would serve the same purpose in showing the inanity humanity brings to the void. What on Earth, I wonder, would a Terry Gilliam-directed Ad Astra be like?

There are some wonderful moments in Ad Astra, but some damningly awkward ones too, and no matter how strange and huge the grand canvas the film shows us, its also depressingly small and human-scaled too. I suppose that may be deliberate, a message in itself, but it also suggests a lack of confidence or a reluctant nod to the mass audience that perhaps thought that what Arrival really lacked was gunfights and action. A research station sending out a mayday message is devoid of bodies/signs of crew, because the sense of ensuing mystery serves the plot, maybe, but later when Brad Pitt finds his destination, its corridors are full of cadavers floating in zero g, presumably for decades. Even a crazy man would have jettisoned the dead into space, right? I mean, air is limited and its full of putrefaction and decay? That’s beyond unhealthy, its beyond stupid.

adastra2There is an awful lot to appreciate in Ad Astra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again at home in 4K (in January next year, I guess) and possibly enjoying it more with reduced expectations. Its a remarkable achievement that it was made for something just a little north of $80 million (by all accounts) as it looks rather bigger. Some of the world-building and art direction is truly amazing, and it feels very grounded most of the time. The cast is great, and Donald Sutherland in a rather short role leaves such a real mark on the film, he perhaps should have been on the journey longer. The cinematography is quite exquisite, and the majority of the visual effects flawless. The music score is perhaps functional at best- it works, but its surprisingly subdued in the audio mix, unless that was an issue at my screening.

The film runs just under two hours, which is refreshing for some perhaps, but I thought it a little short, I think it would have benefited by more time and less narration- less concise, more obtuse, that kind of thing. Dwelt a little longer on the empty spaces between worlds rather than Space Monkeys and Space Pirates, but that was possibly a more intellectual exercise than 20th Century Fox was willing to make.

8 thoughts on “Ad Astra

  1. Tom

    I love movies like this, of for no other reason than just how many different ways people are coming at it (I guess I’m just referring to those with pens and computers and blogs) and the variety in opinion. You And I are somewhat at odds on this and not surprisingly. There’s a weird mix of action and intellectual sci fi here that feels like it’s both pandering to different audiences and yet brilliantly congruous.

    Space pirates and politics on the moon, because of course man can’t help themselves. Subway on the moon, because of course Jared the Subway Guy. (I doubt that was why they used that particular company for product placement. Yet I’m also not sure why else they did. Subway is not in good standing with the public since that revelation so it’s almost a cynical jab.)

    Loved the Martian sequence. That’s where this movie became really Blade Runner-y, the visual aesthetic here just floored me. Overall I think the visuals and performances are what I’ll take away the most, so I guess surface level elements. The introspective narration I didn’t much mind but yeah did feel it was a little excessive towards the end.

    1. That Martian sequence bugged me a little. The lighting (the way the shadows were shifting etc) was indeed very BR2049, like the Wallace building interiors, but wheras in that film it spoke about the sheer wealth and power of Wallace (as if he controlled the sun) in Ad Astra, it was a subterranean base and it looked out of place to me.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I was wondering if you’d go see this.
    I think you’ve pretty much nailed it.

    I was very much looking forward to this; even though Gray’s films are often inert and clumsily written (full of cliches and tired movie stuff that you’ve seen better versions of elsewhere) he’s serious and sincere, and always great visually, so Gray + SF was a must-see for me.

    And it was…. a Gray film in space. Third-hand concept, clunky script, great visuals and individual sequences. I actually preferred the weird action diversions and the episodic nature of the first two acts, because the last section was so dull. I could actually feel the movie evaporating as I watched it, getting less and less interesting visually and thematically as it finally headed nowhere worthwhile.

    Oh well. I’m sure it’ll attain some sort of cult status. I’ve preordered the 4K, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be switching off after we leave Mars.

    1. I was quite surprised, really, that while Gray was obviously so indebted to 2001 he didn’t opt for that films sense of ambiguity- you know, dial back that narration wallpaper for one thing. I did like those evaluation tests that Pitt had to take between each ‘episode’ of his journey; it seemed a smart acknowledgement that one of the dangers of space travel is literally Space Madness, that the human psyche can only take so much of the vast Cosmos before bugging out. We are too fagile, too small, to really cope (I think that was why that other pilot froze during the Mars landing, and was why his own subsequent evaluation should have pulled him off the ships next flight to Neptune- yet he’s on that next mission, a lapse in logic that bugged me). The collateral damage of space flight -that, say, the average flight expectancy was maybe two years before mental stress etc got astronauts grounded- would have explained what made Pitt perfect for the job and also why his dad bugged out. Deep space long-term exploration missions are the stuff for guys like HAL 9000 (as long as their programming is sound, as Kubrick would demonstrated).

      The Apocalypse Now stuff- well, maybe he should have actually turned that up a dial, showed the Solar System in the midst of war, you know, between two factions on Earth (if only East versus West) and have gone into that episodic warzone stuff like Coppola’s film did. At least then, with the apparent revelation that there is no life Out There, it would have highlighted the self-destructive waste humanity was execising.

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