Ad Astra is a work of art that is singularly beautiful but structurally flawed. Writer/director James Gray, working here with cowriter Ethan Gross, attempts a tone of cosmic mystery in his space epic set in the near future. It’s about the personal connections humans make even as we search for extraterrestrial life.
For the most part it works; I found myself falling into the rhythm of Ad Astra even as certain of its elements continued to irritate me. One was the often-pointless voice over (V.O.) narration from the main character. Another was a story that didn’t quite seem to know what it wanted to be. The film is by turns a sweeping ode to space exploration in the mold of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar; an action movie with thrilling set pieces; a horror movie with a killer baboon (don’t worry, I’ll get to it); and a psychological family drama.
Let’s start with that V.O. narration. For me, bad voice over narration isn’t easily definable, and what works in one movie can be disastrous in another. It’s like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about defining hard-core pornography in a 1964 obscenity case: “I know it when I see it.” Or in this case, I know it when I hear it.
The Coen brothers are adept as deploying quirky, humorous voice over (think Raising Arizona) that works. By a serendipitous turn, I happened to watch a few minutes of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas – “research” for a mobster-movie inspired pasta dish I was making – a few days after my screening of Ad Astra.
Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s screenplay for that film is almost wall-to-wall voice over narration from (anti)hero Henry Hill. Much of it commits the cardinal sin of V.O.: describing to us exactly what we can already see on the screen. But it works because it draws us into Henry’s mind and psychological state. It ratchets up the intensity of already intense moments in the movie.
In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride is in a near constant state of V.O. pontification. Unlike Raising Arizona or Goodfellas, though, it doesn’t serve to draw us closer – emotionally or psychologically – to the character. Some of the time McBride is ruminating on the societal breakdown happening around him. At other points he is describing the actions of other characters that we are seeing at that very moment. In both instances, Gray would have been better served to just let us draw our own conclusions. That would have exponentially heightened the sense of mystique in the film.
As it is, we get Pitt intoning solemnly, “He’s scared,” about the copilot of the spacecraft Cepheus, which is taking McBride to Mars. The copilot clearly doesn’t want to board another vessel when his crew intercepts a distress signal. The actor playing the copilot was good enough that he transmitted his character’s fear about the situation without the need for an explanation.
At another point, McBride tells us about humanity taking its petty squabbles out into the solar system. When McBride arrives on the moon, an armed escort takes him from the landing station to an American military base to prepare for the second leg of his journey to Mars. The escort is set upon by armed colonists from other countries – essentially pirates – during the trip. As the shooting starts, McBride tells us in voice over, “Here we go again; fighting over resources.”
It all feels very akin to the infamous studio cut of Blade Runner in which Warner Bros. insisted on adding artless expository dialog from Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard because the studio was afraid audiences would be too lost without it.
An interesting juxtaposition to the V.O. narration that the movie uses are the psychological evaluations to which McBride must periodically submit in order to continue his mission. These psych evals are administered by an A.I. program that considers biometric factors like heartrate and blood pressure alongside what McBride is saying. The evals work almost like Catholic confessionals. Unlike the voice overs in which McBride is confessing only to us, however, when he talks to the A.I. program, we get the sense he is just saying what it wants to hear so it will clear him for the mission. So, while the V.O. doesn’t always work, it gives us enough of a window into McBride’s soul that we make that key distinction during the psych evals.
Screenwriters Grey and Gross also get lost in what kind of story they are telling. The standout example is the aforementioned baboon. This test subject lab animal, on board a Norwegian biomedical space station, is the cause for the distress signal that the Cepheus must investigate. When McBride and the Cepheus’s captain board the ship, Ad Astra turns into a horror movie for five minutes as McBride must confront the murderous primate.
A more charitable view of Ad Astra would describe this and the string of other events in the movie as a kind of Homeric odyssey which McBride must traverse to get to his ultimate goal. In fact, the notes I took during my screening include the sentence, “Is this Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now in space?” Just as I stated above that while watching it, I started to fall into the rhythm of the movie despite myself, even as I sit here writing this, I’m having second thoughts about condemning Ad Astra as unsuccessful.
But ultimately, each scenario that McBride encounters doesn’t feel of a piece with the overall story in a way that something like Alex Garland’s Annihilation does. That movie has a similar structure, but pulls it off more convincingly.
When Ad Astra isn’t preoccupied with overexplaining its themes through its main character’s inner dialog, it does incorporate some very effective, at times stunning, visual sequences. In some instances, it also manages to critique, with brilliant subtlety, our current society through its futuristic setting.
The very first sequence of the movie is an astonishing action set-piece that gave me chills. In the near future, humans are using massively tall antennas for space research and communication that reach beyond the earth’s atmosphere – think huge cell-phone towers that are anchored to the earth’s surface and rise to the heavens. In the event that sets the plot in motion, a mysterious power surge blasts through the solar system. McBride is climbing on a ladder on the outside of one of these antennas when the surge strikes, which causes equipment to fail and fall from above. McBride is knocked off the antenna and falls towards earth. It’s a thrilling bit of movie making that got my heart racing.
Master cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema – responsible for the gorgeous photography on films like Her, Interstellar, and Dunkirk – is in top form here. His vision, along with an incredible visual effects team and a blockbuster-sized budget, make Ad Astra one of the most breathtaking films of the year. No matter the structural concerns I have with the film, it is stunning to look at.
And as I stated above, while most of that V.O. is clunky and flat doesn’t work, Gray does opt for subtlety in a few instances. The best example of this is his Jeff Bezos-ification of commercial space travel, something we are in the infancy of at this moment. U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom) chooses McBride to travel to Mars in an attempt to find the root cause of the mysterious power surges, which seem to be emanating from Neptune. Because the mission is top-secret, he must travel first to the moon, then to Mars aboard commercial space vessels as a cover. Gray comments on what holds us back as a species when he imagines thirst for profits getting mixed up with something as wondrous as traveling to the stars.
A contemplative and challenging yet flawed piece of filmmaking, Ad Astra is a movie that I can easily see rising in my estimation over time and multiple viewings. While there were too many elements in James Gray’s movie that rubbed me the wrong way, I was at times overwhelmed by his vision, and appreciative of the experience.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- I mentioned this title in the review, but I’ll mention it again. I’m getting strong Annihilation vibes from Ad Astra. Not in terms of content or even form, but I think this one will grow on me the way Annihilation did. Gray creates a very satisfying atmosphere and world here, but some of the mechanics of the story didn’t work for me.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One of those mechanics issues was the reason McBride needed to travel to Mars in the first place. Without spoiling anything, he is trying to deliver a message to someone near the planet Neptune. Maybe I missed something, but why couldn’t SpaceCom just transmit the message from the moon (or earth, for that matter) instead of making McBride go all the way to Mars?
- Every time I think I’ve become completely jaded to sci-fi special effects shots of space, a movie like Ad Astra comes along and puts me in complete awe. There is real wonder in these sequences, and I’m so glad I got to experience them on the big screen.
- There is one example of Gray keeping things ambiguous that I wish he had applied to the rest of his movie. When McBride and the pilot board the medical ship that sent the distress signal, they must enter an emergency “mayday code” in order to gain access. Gray never explains how that works, and the lack of explanation made my mind work overtime to fill in the blanks. Was the mayday code sent as part of the distress signal? Is that particular code a standard one that pilots know in order to speed up the process of helping ships in distress? It’s a tiny plot point, but I found it fascinating.
- People are raving about Pitt’s performance. I thought he was fine. It’s acting through passivity, on par with Pitt’s work in a movie like The Tree of Life. It’s an understated performance, and he’s good, it just didn’t knock me out.
- Why is Natasha Lyonne in this movie? She’s in one scene for about 45 seconds and she is given NOTHING to do. If you’re going to have Natasha Lyonne in your movie, let her spray her Natasha Lyonne all over the place, otherwise, why bother?
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Two bro-dudes (who turned out to be, I think, father and son once I got a look at them after the movie) were sitting right behind me, and one of them felt the need to verbalize EVERYTHING that popped into his head (this was, I believe, the dad). Luckily, he must not have had that many things pop into his head during the actual movie. I only had to put up with the occasional “huh” when something interesting happened.
- There were also two older women a few rows in front of me who spoke at full volume whenever they needed something from their server. Again, I lucked out, because they didn’t need that much once the movie actually started.