With out-of-this-world visuals.
In the current cinematic climate of sequels and reboots, it’s getting increasingly harder to find a science fiction movie that is not only original but also great in its own right. Only several movies in the past decade deserve this distinction, the last of which was 2016’s Arrival.
That’s why I was so excited for Ad Astra, which was described by director James Grayson as “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.” In fact, this movie is so ambitious that it’s clearly trying to emulate 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but ultimately only manages to do so in terms of visuals.
2001: A Space Odyssey was released more than five decades ago, but the sheer brilliance and magnificence of its visuals and story remain timeless and awe-inspiring even in 2019. Ad Astra attempts to follow in the legendary movie’s footsteps by depicting space travel in the most cinematic way possible, and in this regard, it definitely succeeds.
Ad Astra boasts the same lingering shots of spaceships and astronauts in space as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every shot in space is breathtaking and simply an incredible sight to behold, thanks to veteran cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who was also responsible for the amazing visuals in 2014’s Interstellar.
Taking cues from other great sci-fi-like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, the sound is muted during scenes set in space in Ad Astra. This results in atmospheric and intense scenes, where all you can hear is the voice of the actors speaking inside their helmets and the occasional dramatic sound effect for gunshots or the like.
From purely technical and visual cinematic perspectives, Ad Astra is out of this world, which is why watching it in IMAX would deliver the absolute best experience. The grand scope of its scenes set in space is unparalleled. However, the movie suffers from style over substance, which makes it falter in other aspects.
Brooding Brad Pitt
There’s a reason why Brad Pitt is the only actor featured on the poster for Ad Astra. You’ll be looking at his handsome mug for probably around 90 percent of the movie. In this case, that’s both good and bad in equal measure. Why is that? Well, Pitt’s performance as the stoic and indifferent Major Roy McBride is complex and layered.
Throughout the movie, we learn about Pitt’s McBride through his introspective narrations and contemplative inner monologues. It is through these moments that his character conveys the heavy emotional baggage he carries with him, despite his cold outward facade showing none of the pain inside.
This pain bubbles nearer the surface and threatens to burst as the mission at hand forces him to search for his father, who went missing decades ago in a mission whose objective is to find intelligent alien life. The crushing and existential loneliness of space travel further exacerbates this psychological breakdown.
Unfortunately, the remaining 10 percent of the movie has to squeeze the rest of the amazing cast of actors, whose talents are squandered in minor roles and limited screentime. I liked Ruth Negga’s Helen Lantos and Donald Sutherland’s Colonel Pruitt, but it seemed like they were plot devices for the purpose of pushing Pitt’s McBride one step closer to finding his father.
Liv Tyler is wasted as McBride’s estranged wife, Eve, as she can only be seen in silent flashbacks and pre-recorded videos. The problem of one individual (Brad Pitt) carrying the entire movie by himself (despite his great performance) has caused the cracks in the movie to become even more evident.
A Movie Of Two Halves
The first half of Ad Astra is brilliant, but it couldn’t keep the momentum going until the very end. The second half of the movie feels like it gradually lost focus until it feebly crawls to an anti-climactic and dragged-out conclusion, resulting in a very unsatisfying ending that left a bad taste in my mouth.
This is all made the more frustrating when you consider how great the first half of the movie is in setting up the mystery and drama, leaving you eager and hungry for the payoff, that sadly never really hits as well as it should have.
It’s like the director didn’t know how to end Ad Astra and decided to go with one of the most cliched and derived endings in the history of science fiction.
I also had other qualms with the movie. As a sci-fi enthusiast, I usually expect a certain polish of world-building and lore in my movies and series. Ad Astra showed glimpses and slivers of that in the first half of the movie when Pitt’s McBride lands on the moon base, where famous brands like Subway and Yoshinoya can be observed having established stores there.
Another scene sees Pitt’s McBride asking for a hot and wet towel on the commercial space flight on the way to the moon, which turned out to cost a whopping $125. These moments show elements of a near-future where even humanity’s efforts in space exploration and colonisation have been invaded by the greedy roots of capitalism.
One of the highlights in Ad Astra depicts a thrilling moon rover chase sequence, where Pitt’s McBride’s journey to the dark side of the moon is intercepted by lunar pirates. This was not only the best action scene in the movie but one that excitingly projects the idea that humanity’s first community in space (on the moon) is similar to the old wild west, where bandits and lawlessness reigns.
If you’re wondering why I spoiled the best part of the movie, I didn’t. This was even part of the promotional material by 20th Century Fox themselves on YouTube, which you can check out below. Oh, and don’t expect there to be much more of this high-octane action sequences in the movie, or you’ll be sorely disappointed.
My point is that Ad Astra could have been a lot better if it had expanded the worldbuilding and maintained the momentum of its first half. The second half of the movie ruins the experience because it suddenly turns into a cliched caricature of itself while trying hard to be as intellectual and cerebral as possible.
I would still recommend this film for those who can appreciate the movie’s excellent cinematography and inherent sci-fi themes, or fans of more contemplative science fiction.
Ad Astra is first and foremost a science fiction drama, which is what you should be expecting when watching this movie.
Just don’t come in expecting mind-blowing science fiction like Interstellar or 2016’s Arrival, or something explosive and epic like Star Wars or Star Trek.
FINAL SCORE: 60/100
We received a preview screening courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Malaysia. Ad Astra premieres in Malaysian cinemas on 19 September 2019.