The recent trend of films giving away very little in their trailers is a technique that perhaps ultimately works against James Gray‘s Ad Astra. While potential viewers hopefully have their interest piqued by a film that doesn’t dare give anything away, there’s a mental backlash inherent in the reveal that there wasn’t anything to give away.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, after a fashion, and when the Earth itself is suddenly in danger, he is in a unique position to help. His father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared decades ago as his science vessel approached Neptune. Now that strange energy pulses are threatening to tear apart the planet, and are originating somewhere near Neptune, the powers that be think Clifford may be alive and they need Roy to try to contact him.
Really, all Roy has to do is talk to his father and get him to give up his position, so we know exactly where he is, but that’s hardly a film, so Roy has to travel to the moon where he will catch a ride to Mars. This gives the time necessary for Roy to methodically lay out his abandonment issues, as well as repeatedly walk us through much of his psyche construction, which seems a result of equal parts hoping to live up to his father’s outlook and the Big Brother-esque, governmental requirements of vocalizing one’s mental state.
Before long, it isn’t difficult to piece together the puzzle that is Roy. By any account available, his father was a genius and hero, and that seems to be because he was focused on achieving his goal at any cost. Couple that childhood with having to constantly declare your willingness to avoid any sort of distraction, and Roy has a worldview that’s about to discover it has been sailing awfully close to the rocks all along.
At its heart, Ad Astra has something to say that isn’t unworthy of being said, but it’s the equivalent of taking Psych 100 for four years instead of a semester. It keeps telling you who and why Roy is long after it becomes simply burdensome as opposed to explanatory, which means we’re forced into side trips that are ultimately purposeless, except, for example, to once again show us how calm and detached he can remain no matter the circumstances he’s put in.
It’s an odd move for writer/director James Gray who has demonstrated far superior abilities when it comes to delivering on a purpose. There are moments that deliver, largely owing to Pitt’s inescapable charisma, but even these moments fall victim to the plodding structure of the delivery and are more in love with manifesting a visual mood than working a sensible plot. At one point, we stare at Roy as he delivers his message while those in charge look on behind the glass of the control booth. It’s an uncomfortable piece of staging, reminiscent of Brazil, but it ends up highlighting the curiosity of those who don’t trust Roy allowing him to take the trip to Mars (as opposed to recording him while he’s on Earth) as much as the gravitas of being trapped outside the loop.
There are many fans of meandering exploration films, and I’m one, but Ad Astra is like a film that only knew Solaris was slow and had gorgeous visuals and people talking to themselves a lot, and figured that was the whole recipe. Worse, especially for a film that is literally about a massive undertaking in exploration, films like this only work if they boil down to questions, and Ad Astra thinks it has answers.
Don’t miss our Podcast Review of Ad Astra on iTunes, Stitcher, or anywhere you get your podcasts. Listen below.