There are moments when watching Ad Astra when one would be equally intrigued to explore the world around its main drama.
Potentially fun asides lurk in the story behind Brad Pitt’s character arc. There are multi-mile high solar antenna, references to war in the Arctic Circle, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates branded spaceships running to a moon split between Futurama-esque theme park and warzone, underground bases on Mars, and Norwegian medical research spacecraft filled with unexpected creatures.
For the most part, however, this nicely created world is a backdrop. In the tradition of many a sci-fi, the colourful world is located around a more intimate and personal story. In the context of this story, it also serves to help enhance the main character’s isolation before things get truly solo-oriented.
Whether it fully works or not is clearly a matter of opinion. Ad Astra seems to fully create opinion throughout – there has been some rave reviews, some true contempt, and some others who have suggested the film veers rapidly between great and bad.
The basic premise of Ad Astra is partially, if not wholly, a “stop the bomb” mission. Pitt’s character Roy McBride is an astronaut that is the son of legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who lead the first human mission to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune but from whom has not been heard in 15 years.
At the start of the movie, violent power surges wreak havoc with human bases throughout the solar system. These are traced to The Lima Project – codename of the project McBride Sr took to Neptune. This duly leads Roy on a journey across the solar system to eventually find out what’s going on, and in the process, answer some personal questions.
The film is almost entirely based around the central performance from Pitt. Indeed, its billed in advance by many critics and ordinary viewers as one of the finest in his career, and a potential contender at next winter’s film awards season.
While its merits or otherwise there may well be a point for debate, it is still an excellent performance. Pitt does excellently well at bringing the balance of a man trying to be perfectly calm while at permanent unease with his surroundings.
The character of Roy McBride is someone who, at heart, is unhappy with his general life while trying to present a façade of feeling OK with it. The isolation inherent in interstellar travel has often been used as a backdrop to explore the human psyche, and the general performance does a fairly engaging job at exploring this bleakness.
Pitt also does well at keeping things afloat when the film strays into more shaky territory. The scenes on the Norwegian biomedical ship, for instance, feel like they belong to a different film, as do some Blade Runner-evoking shots when the crew makes it to Mars in its underground base.
The film also feels like its supporting cast is a higher calibre than it knows what to do with. Jones gets his moment in the film’s final moments, with a fair bit of recurring roles in the movie to set him up as the film’s end destination.
By contrast, there’s a brief cameo for Donald Sutherland that exists as a bit of a blip more than anything else, and that is still more than Liv Tyler gets, with the actress getting effectively nothing to do save for 3/4 secondary scenes.
There are bits where the film does look to be straying into the territory of being a 2001 clone, to say nothing of a couple of other sci-fi films in the interim. But the atmosphere of the piece is still engaging enough to keep emotional engagement.
Ad Astra is certainly a fascinating movie. Its a noble attempt at the traditional sci-fi scope of playing intimate stories against vast backdrops. There’s also a strong central performance from Pitt and the film comfortably expresses its character’s unease at the world around him. But there are moments when it sometimes feels like the film strays into more inconsistent and occasionally weirder moments, which perhaps is what leads it open to its more divisive opinion.