Movie Review: AD ASTRA – Brad Pitt sleepwalks through an intimate space journey that doesn’t deserve the hype.

You know, when some people liken ANY science fiction movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m immediately skeptical.  Not only is the Kubrick Klassic one of the few actual science fiction movies out there (sorry, Stars Trek and Wars don’t count), it also happens to be one of my all-time favourite films.  So I was skeptical but curious enough to watch it.  Admittedly though, the draw for me was Brad Pitt.

Now, I’m no fan of Brad Pitt.  He’s generally good in most of his movies, but I’m not a great fan of the movies he chooses to appear in.  I might have seen half of his cinematic output – he’s not a must-see “name” for me.  That might have changed after seeing the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, because I thought he was terrific in it, and I consider it a career performance, deserving of any awards that he’ll surely be up for.  So this movie has space, Brad Pitt, and it looked pretty good.  I was pretty sure I’d enjoy it.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride.  Fresh off an accident that could have claimed his life, McBride is quickly whisked to a top-secret meeting where he’s told his accident – a power surge on a space antenna – was one of a number of power surges that have been recently plaguing Earth, causing increasing damage.  Scientists have determined that the power surges are growing in strength, and appear to be emanating from Neptune.  These power surges, it has been determined, could soon destroy all life on Earth.  Not only that, they’ve determined that they’re being caused by McBride’s father, whose mission to Neptune vanished mysteriously while conducting a search for alien life.  This is a surprise to McBride, as he, and just about everyone else, considered his father dead.  As a last-ditch effort, the government wants Pitt to travel to Mars in order to send a signal to Neptune, to get McBride senior to stop what he’s doing.  That’s basically the setup, and it comes in an exposition-heavy ending to Act One.

Which was right around the time my alarm bells went off.  The opening scene is pretty good, but I’d seen that kind of meeting in too many movies before, and some things didn’t make a lot of sense.  Why did he need to go to Mars to send a signal to Neptune?  Maybe there was a scientific reason, but I don’t recall it.  Not only that, he has to go to the Moon first, in order to launch to Mars.  It was a total plot contrivance, and way, waaaayyy too busy.  I hate that kind of writing.  If he needs to go to Mars, just send him to Mars.  Except even there the story has a natural stop.  Once he sends the signal, now what?  Well, as you already know, he ventures onwards to Neptune.  The plot goes through a couple of steps in order for him to get to that point, but when I was watching the movie, I was completely aware that all of these steps were forgettable.  The story requires him to to to Neptune.  Everything else gets in the way of that story, and those stepping stone scenes were all so full of inconsistent plotting I was turned off quickly.  He’s on the Moon, which is, by then, a tourist destination and he has to drive across the surface to the launchpad over on the dark side, under the open threat of space pirates … wait a fuckin minute here, pal.  Space pirates are known to the government.  They’re reportedly extremely dangerous, and he’s on a mission to possibly SAVE MANKIND, but they can’t find some other means of getting him there.  For all the great leaps in technology the film shows us, the only way of getting from point A to point B is by MOON BUGGY?  Garbage.

So yeah, he gets to Mars, but far from it being an interesting place, it’s like a depressing office block in Big City, USA, staffed by people who clearly don’t want to be there.  It’s “How To Write Beaureaucracy 101”.  Every part of that scene is so completely uninteresting, that when McBride is able to hitch a ride to Neptune anyway, I was so glad that scene was over it almost made me give a free pass to the “action scene” that follows when he encounters the crew of the Neptune-bound ship.  The script, written by James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross, just seems like it was hastily assembled from notecards, instead of a full development phase.  So little of the scenes hold any real story value, it kind of shocked me.

What people talk about in regard to this movie is the emotional journey of self-awakening that McBride goes through, but I felt that Pitt’s character was so overwhelmingly one-note from start to finish, that I could barely detect whatever change he was supposed to have undergone by the end of the movie.  He’s a humourless, work-obsessed bore at the beginning, and a humourless, not-quite-work obsessed bore at the end.  And this is completely the fault of the script, I should add.  Roy McBride is not an authentic character.  There’s nothing for Pitt to work with.  He’s simply an anonymous character who talks slowly and deliberately and from that the audience is meant to sense great depth.  Well, I didn’t.

The final act of the movie is just filled with so much garbage I left the theater annoyed as hell.  Gray took great pains to deliver a good looking movie, but by the end, the movie collapses under the weight of its glaringly obvious scientific inaccuracies and complete lack of payoff from the callback to McBride Sr’s original mission.  On top of that, there’s no real reason, or even proof, that McBride is causing all the power surges anyway!  It all became too much for me, and I couldn’t prevent myself from expressing my frustration out loud.  Good thing there was almost nobody within earshot.  I don’t often get THAT angry at movies, but this one almost made me feel like I was sitting next to a Theater Texter, that’s how miffed I was.  Please, do not spoil the movie … by writing an awful script …

The worst thing about the final act was the adoption of the Skyrim Fast-Travel device.  You know what I mean, right?  They used it in Game Of Thrones – people and things getting to where they need to go with alarming speed and very little time actually passing, simply because the plot demanded it.  I won’t tell you how it works in Ad Astra, but I had completely checked out by then, and only had the energy left to mock it when my wife and I drove home.

What did I like?  Well, the production design is pretty terrific.  It’s a really good-looking movie to sit through, even if what you’re sitting through is a two hour movie that feels like three.  And James’s Gray’s direction is a lot better than his writing, that’s for sure.

So to compare this movie to 2001 is utterly ridiculous.  It makes me wonder if the people making these claims have even watched that movie, or are they just paid for clickbait headlines, like those who said Veronica was the scariest movie EVER back in Feb 2018.  In fact, it plays more like 1997’s underappreciated horror movie, Event Horizon, except this time, when the protagonist travels to deep space to find a rediscovered space ship, he finds … not much of anything.


© Andrew Hope, 2019

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