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Ad Astra   rating

Review: written 2020

Reaches for the stars, but fails to deliver

 Ad Astra

Brad Pitt plays an emotionally repressed astronaut in a ‘near-future’ where space travel looks similar but has become commonplace. “I am focused only on the essential, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions.”, says his ever-present voiceover in case we missed all the clues. We’re drip fed ideas such as his distant wife no longer being part of his life due to his focus on nothing but work, or his absent father, who went on a mission to the edge of the solar system looking for extra-terrestrial life, or indeed various other pieces of exposition telling us his pulse has never been above 80 no matter what stress he is under. This reaction under stress is demonstrated in a terrific start as the worlds long reach antennae (a tower extending up into space) is affected by a power surge with catastrophic results. This is terrific cinema, with visuals, editing, acting and music all working well together. The titles shout out ‘profundity’ and the opening scenes shouts ‘excitement’. Brad Pitt’s buttoned-up character is asked to perform in extraordinary circumstances, not unlike Neil Armstrong in “First Steps’, and with a design and cinematography which occasionally harks back to the likes of 2001, so the movies being referenced bode well, but after the blistering introduction, it’s unfortunately downhill from there.

 Ad Astra

We are told there is a signal from Neptune causing the damaging power surges, and it may be related to Pitt’s long-lost father’s mission. He’s requested to head to Mars (via the moon) to send a message to his dad. The visuals are beautiful, thoughtfully done, and lend themselves to an existential movie about father and son, and about the realisation that as human beings, connection to each other is the essential thing in life, not work or – as seems to be suggested in the film – religion. This essay on solitude could be an interesting movie – but its fumbled here. Not least because the journey takes us via several very different movies instead. We find ourselves in a shootout on the moon over mining rights. This vision for how colonisation becomes both mundane and ‘creating exactly what we were running away from’ is intriguing, but not followed up. Then there’s the frankly odd segue into a movie about rabid animals loose on a spacecraft which is like a mini horror movie, or yet another subplot about the political skulduggery of establishment not telling you everything - the paranoid conspiracy movie. All of these could well have been interesting, but a compelling through-narrative they do not make.

 Ad Astra

Instead when the ending comes, it doesn’t matter how breathtaking the visuals are, or how well acted it is from Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones (in his very brief screen time), it still feels long winded and feels neither exciting enough or profound enough to have been worth the journey. The journey itself in the second half of the movie feels to me to be riffing on Apocalypse Now, as we get a monotone monologue voiceover as the boat /spacecraft moves ever upstream/further into space, with beautiful imagery as a backdrop. Throughout the movie, Pitt regularly has to talk to the computer to reveal his inner monologue as a ‘psychological evaluation’ – it’s a contrivance which is irritatingly the opposite of ‘Show, don’t tell’ cinema, and for a movie that seems to aspire to be cerebral, it seems to treat the audience as being pretty stupid. It’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is – and feels condescending as a result.

This is truly one of the lost opportunities of the year – great talent, great visuals and some great ideas – but seemed to lack the conviction to go with one idea and make it work, and instead goes for an unsatisfying melange of a movie.

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