Returning to Ad Astra, a few months after its cinema release back in September, was a surprisingly rewarding experience. I’m always curious about returning to films like this when their disc releases come out, and more so regards this film than some. I really had mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it, and while my reservations remain, particularly towards its ending, I have to confess I enjoyed the film much more second time around. Diminished expectations and all that.
First things first though, I have to say, this film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, indeed much, much better than it did back in the cinema. I’d possibly forgotten how beautiful the film’s cinematography was, but certainly the tired projection quality/old screens of my Cineworld (currently getting a refurb as I type this so hopefully soon rectified) can’t match sitting a few feet away from my 55″ OLED. There is a lovely filmic quality to the very detailed image, a nice amount of (but not overpowering) grain, some subtle HDR and beautiful colour range- its a great addition to the format and a reminder that sometimes its worth paying a premium. So it looks pretty. But what about the film?
Well, Brad Pitt’s subdued performance is certainly more nuanced than I remembered, and his interior monologues via voiceover are not as distracting as I thought first time around. I do think the nods in the narrative towards Apocalypse Now are too on the nose and in practice proves an awkward fit for a science fiction film (the journey up the river in Coppola’s film isn’t a convincing analogue for a space odyssey across the solar system). For one thing, a 79-day journey from Mars to Neptune that manages to fit in flybys of both Jupiter and Saturn seems an incredibly fortuitous piece of planetary alignment, but hey, as John Brosnan said, ‘Its only a movie’ so I should maybe cut the film a break (the less said about Space Pirates and mad Space Baboons the better).
What I really like about the film, and something I wish it had focused on more, was its nihilistic approach to humanity in the universe. The void is vast and inhuman, a silent expanse that defies comprehension, and it is hinted several times during the film that the immensity of space and time can easily damage the human psyche. Its why the characters have to submit to periodic evaluations and why one of the pilots of the Cepheus seems to suffer a breakdown during a tense emergency arriving at Mars. Its frustrating when the films logic then appears to breakdown, as that same burned-out pilot is immediately passed out for a further flight to Neptune when he really should be grounded. I found the conceit that space travel breaks people, even the smartest and fittest, if only because we really don’t ‘belong’ Out There, was a great subject and indeed a fitting enough explanation for Tommy Lee Jones going all Colonel Kurtz out at Neptune but not really developed enough.
Its frustrating because one of the things so interesting (and infuriating for some viewers) about First Man was its rather detached, cold-fish portrayal of Neil Armstrong. The voyage to the moon is all business for Armstrong in that film, and he seems to shut down emotionally throughout, but its how he seemed to deal with it. As laymen we always want to know what it felt like to stand on the surface of the moon and look back on the Earth, but sending engineers/test-pilots to the moon instead of poets means that NASA failed to really answer that question, frustrating our need to really empathise with the event, understand its magnitude. Indeed, it possibly frustrated Armstrong for the rest of his life trying to articulate it. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, what must it do to a human to look up and see the Earth, the place where anything that ever happened in all the history books, and where any man or woman who ever lived spent their lives, every place or person we ever heard of, encompassed in that small blue globe lost in the totality of the inky blackness around it? Can the fragile psyche of a human really comprehend it without snapping or finding God (or both), or perhaps shrugging it off as an engineering achievement?
Ad Astra perhaps gets too obsessed with the intimate (cold-fish Roy McBride’s relationship with his long-lost father) instead of really sufficiently dealing with the Infinite. I liked its suggestion that we are truly alone, that there is no life Out There. His father Clifford McBride seems to break at the realisation that there is nothing for him to find, no answers, no solutions, just empty silence and dead worlds. Roy finds solace in returning to Earth and realising that what he have, through relationships with loved ones etc, should be enough: Love Conquers All I guess, but its clearly a revelation lost on Clifford, who coolly states he never once thought about the wife or child he left behind.
Well, Ad Astra is a flawed film, not as intelligent as it pretends to be or as fulfilling as it could have been. The finale of the film, when Roy finally meets his father, is the weakest part of the whole piece. As I think I mentioned with my earlier review, I actually think the film needed to be longer, that we needed more time with Clifford and Roy out at Neptune, the loneliest humans there has ever been, and how each of them deal with that in their own way. Maybe that would have been too much of an intellectual exercise for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, I don’t know, but in any case as it stands the film fails to realise both the emotional and intellectual wallop that it aims for. It seems to suggest that the answers for the human experience lie in Inner Space rather than Outer Space, that the universe is cold and lifeless and ignorant of every one of us: its not that we don’t matter, its that we need to matter to each other. Maybe that’s a stretch, or maybe its just that the film fumbles that answer.
But at least it seems to ask the question. There’s a lot of good in Ad Astra and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again. I’ll just be filling in the blanks with what I think it means and what it could have been, while considering just what a masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey really was.