Ad Astra: Sometimes it’s better to go full sci-fi
“Ad Astra” portrays the journey of a man careening through a soulless void in search of both his father and perhaps a new purpose in life. However, the lines between the soullessness of space and the soullessness of this movie blur together, satisfying some members of the audience, and confusing and frustrating others.
Right out of the gate, “Ad Astra” tells you what this movie cares about most: world-building. An opening sequence on a space rig demonstrates the film’s smooth merger of realism and science fiction. The atmosphere of this universe in the near future is seamless and enticing. One can almost imagine a future where there are road signs and a Subway on the moon or terrorists hiding in environments untouched by sunlight.
The production and sound design heighten the audience’s immersion into this world. Unique sounds inject viewers with suspense and awe. Practical sets are constructed with the qualities of a mosaic and bend the environment more towards natural sci-fi, but never overemphasize themselves. The rich colors of space and the varied planets are wisely contrasted with the dullness of human ships and buildings. The film world becomes incredible and mystifying.
This can, however, have a negative connotation when is come to the narrative. The sets, colors, environments, animals, costumes and history are all so intricate and well-developed compared to the flimsy story taking place. One begins to question what the true purpose of this film is. Is it a character study with universal themes? Or does it use that as an excuse to build a complex and naturally enriched world?
In an argument for this film as a character study, one only has to look at actor Brad Pitt in the lead role. The entire narrative and theme are built around his character. Pitt plays the character with excellent control of his emotions, mastering stoicism and repression while never coming off as boring. The best kind of repressive acting is the type that subtly lets the audience understand what the character is feeling through the actor’s collected, stoic demeanor. Pitt achieves this in spades, allowing viewers to empathize with his nuanced persona.
The same cannot be said for any other character in the film. Actors like Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are merely vehicles for the plot, not showing any hint of a unique personality (which is not helped by their cold and stilted dialogue). Even Tommy Lee Jones is only provided surface-level characteristics despite the entire plot centering around the search for him. All of this, unfortunately, hurts Pitt’s character, who, rather than having interesting foils to clash against, is isolated. Thus, the choices he makes never seem significant because there are no juxtaposing philosophies to challenge them and grow him as a character. The filmmakers maybe should have considered “Ad Astra” to be Pitt leading an ensemble rather than a one man show.
The film attempts to reconcile this by adding a voiceover from Pitt, which is a golden rule of lazy screenwriting. It thankfully does not dump exposition onto the audience, but instead tells them things that are already blatantly obvious. At one point, a minor character is asked to embark on a dangerous mission. His silence and frightened facial expressions paint an obvious picture: he is distressed. However, the film chooses to have Pitt, through voiceover, tell viewers, “He’s scared.” This device becomes so arbitrary that it begins to feel like a parody of the self-serious story playing out on screen.
“Ad Astra” feels like a competent, passionate, and reserved student film. It strives to be a tour de force, but never properly weaves its themes into a well-developed story. Instead, audiences are left with an anticlimactic, undercooked, slow burn. The sacrifice of certain elements for the larger story world lead to little pay off with confusing plot threads still dangling that were far more interesting than the story presented. Sometimes, it is better for a movie to go full science fiction, rather than half measure it. The story can still be dramatically realistic, yet also otherworldly, alien, and majestic (just look at recent films like “Arrival” or “Annihilation”).
“Ad Astra” is underwhelming, becoming an amalgamation of concepts, characters, and ideas from other science fiction, but never fully developing them. Some audience members will grasp onto Pitt’s story and performance, hailing it as a methodical character study, but others will be left drifting in space, searching for the soul of a technically striking, yet hollow film experience.
The composer for this film is Max Richter, whose “On the Nature of Daylight” was used in the infinitely better sci-fi film, “Arrival” from 2016.
The voiceover is almost reminiscent of a classic noir story. Now that would have been a really interesting twist on the sci-fi genre: a hardboiled, planet-hopping, detective story set against the cosmos.
One praise to give this movie is some of its creative camera angles. They do not do too much for the story, but sizzling shots with shallow focus, extravagant wide shots, and helmet reflections in the camera add some grit to the narrative dullness.
The film tells the audience in its opening exactly what Ad Astra means in Latin: “To the Stars.” This is very ironic since by the end, the theme is “go back to earth.”