Ad Astra (“to the stars”) is a semi-silly low-serotonin remake of Apocalypse Now in space. A major difference is that Apocalypse Now was a director’s movie. This one, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, is an actor’s movie. Guess which actor comes off amazing in it?
Another difference is that Apocalypse Now was a great movie. Ad Astra is merely watchable. Pitt has good instincts for scripts, but his thirst for roles that show him to be a completely implacably awesomely omni-capable hero is limiting him. In World War Z, after a sudden outbreak of sprinting zombies, he not only knew exactly what to do, but he wasn’t even surprised. In this one, he’s a pilot-soldier-spy on a mission to save the universe. He’s onscreen virtually every moment. Nobody else gets more than about two pages of dialogue, even the woman who occupies the center of his thoughts. All we know about her is that she’s Liv Tyler. She doesn’t get to talk, she doesn’t get to do anything, she doesn’t have any characteristics, she’s just His Woman. You might as well have called the film Brad Astra.
I somewhat enjoyed it as an experience, mostly because of the rich atmosphere — immaculate, detailed production design by Kevin Thompson, eye-popping photography by the cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. Writer-director James Gray, whose habit it is to make prestige films that aren’t very good (We Own the Night, The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) has imagined a near-future in which man is becoming increasingly comfortable with living away from Earth but also stricken by a hollow realization that nothing out there is going to fix what’s wrong with us. The moon is so thoroughly colonized that it’s practically become a Disney property — Year After Tomorrowland. Is outer space ultimately just another place for man to trash with his bad habits?
The numb internal monologue of battle-scarred veteran Roy McBride, Pitt’s character, is the voice of all mankind, crushed flat with perpetual disappointment. Roy has left his wife. Couldn’t stay connected with her anymore. Can’t feel anything. His pulse never rises above 75. He’s the polar opposite of the cocky Deadpool wannabe Matt Damon played in The Martian.
A charge that was unfairly leveled at First Man, but can fairly be leveled at Ad Astra, was that its tortured, wounded central character made the whole film listless. Roy’s dazed musings and Ad Astra’s poky pace frequently place it on the wrong side of the divide between thoughtful and inert. Gray throws in a Road Warrior–style moon battle and an attack of a rabid space monkey to jolly things along, but his heart isn’t in either of these scenes, which come from nowhere and lead nowhere.
The Colonel Kurtz figure is Roy’s dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a former hero who has gone rogue and turned murderous, somewhere out there. He was last seen in the vicinity of Neptune and is given to muttering Colonel Kurtz-isms such as “I am free of your moral boundaries.” By coincidence, a series of antimatter explosions is causing massive electrical storms on Earth that are killing tens of thousands of people, and they’ve been traced to Clifford’s last known location. Slipping into Captain Willard mode, Roy hitches a ride with a team of fun-loving space cowboys and heads into the heart of darkness with an eye toward stopping his father from extinguishing all life as we know it.
The most 2019 aspect of Ad Astra is that it sounds as though it was written in a therapy session — Roy has to keep doing interviews with computers that ask him how he’s feeling today. No one would have thought to test Willard this way because he obviously would have failed, and so does Roy. Which means he has to go rogue in order to stop his rogue dad. Time to sneak up the butt end of a rocket! Which is also the hot end. This seems unlikely.
Roy is so preposterously composed and adept in all situations that, more than once, I thought of Helix, starring Anna Scott, the very silly sci-fi movie within the movie Notting Hill. Gray and Pitt have cloaked the silliness in thick clouds of vaporous interior monologue (“I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends”) that sounds like a Doctor Phil rewrite of the voiceover narration in Pitt’s The Tree of Life. The ponderousness that is supposed to make the film feel deep merely makes it feel soggy. It doesn’t fix the problem with Roy, which is that he’s a male, moody Mary Sue.