Set in the near future, Ad Astra shows a solar system being struck by mysterious power surges that threaten all life on Earth. As time is going by, these surges are increasing in intensity, and there have already been a number of deaths arising from such instances. The US Space Command (SpaceCom – a futuristic version of NASA, complete with private investment), believes the source of the problem to be the base of operations for the long-lost Lima Project. This mission had been run by legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and sought to establish, in the farthest reaches of the solar system, whether intelligent extra-terrestrial life existed. With Clifford missing for over a quarter of a century, his son, Roy (Brad Pitt), is now also a seasoned astronaut.
With Mars the only established colony unaffected by the bursts, Roy is sent there, via the moon, to try to make audio contact with the area of Neptune’s outer atmosphere in which SpaceCom believe the missing Lima Project craft to be hiding. As Roy encounters factional territorial space disputes, and has to deal with the many weeks in cramped deep space conditions that come with the assignment, he sees his mental health challenged, as he deals with his life and relationship choices and is forced to consider the choices he made as the son of a legend.
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As Astra is the cinematic equivalent of the Rorschach test: it is likely that what the viewer will take from the experience will depend entirely on what they take in with them. For some it will be the contemplative grown-up sci-fi that used to be so in vogue in the years before Star Wars pushed the needle towards fantasy (think Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps even George Lucas’s own THX 1138). These types of films are now rare, as they are very pricey, without bringing a guaranteed financial return. The closest we’ve seen in recent year was probably Duncan Jones’ 2009 Sam Rockwell-starring Moon.
For others, this film will reflect concerns that mirror various stages of life. Roy lost his father, then entered the same career as that in which his Dad held legendary status. This film will speak to those who have ever had to follow in large footsteps. Roy is a man whose marriage broke-up due to his inability to balance his high-pressure career with the needs of those he loved: so it will speak, also, to those who have lost someone due to their own behaviours and choices. As he learns more of his father, he learns that he is the second generation to make this mistake; but his feelings having done so stand in stark contrast to those of Clifford. Ideas of regret and living what may have been the dreams of others – the expectations that we seek to meet, often without questioning whether they are applicable to our lives and what we want for ourselves. As Astra deals with all of this, but in a way that is only there if the viewer takes those preoccupations in with them.
Watching Brad Pitt’s astonishingly open performance brought to mind a couple of things. First, how far he has come as a performer in the 25 years or so since he came to fame. In his early years he was an overly busy performer, fond of little tics and expressions that drew attention to all the wrong things in his various turns. In both Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he has given two performances this year that are generally fairly low-key, and let the subtleties of the human face do almost all of the work. This is the 2019 equivalent of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now: the man watching his surroundings, and burying his uncomfortable mental state, as he heads to an uncertain future. It is the performance of an acting veteran, and simply something he could not have achieved as a younger man. That director James Gray (We Own the Night) chooses, more often than not, to put the camera merely a couple of feet from Pitt’s face, means that the actor really does have nowhere to hide. His every facial micro-movement has been captured, and Pitt doesn’t waste one.
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There is no getting around the serious limitation, however, that the film is unforgivably slow. As the viewer may sit applying all aspects of personal experience, mistakes and decisions to McBride’s journey, this is all well and good. What if those connections are not forged though? Viewing this simply as a plot and series of character moments, it is slow and a little thin. It is perhaps 40 minutes before the plot really gets going at all, and when it does, it is still very stop-start. This is the film about a man coping with the contents of his mind, as he has time to consider his choices. It really isn’t any more than that. We are left with a small number of terrific scenes: two stand-outs are Roy recording several messages for his father, as his mental state really starts to collapse under the strain – we are told early in the film that his heart-rate (constantly monitored by psych evaluations that serve both as Captain’s Log-style exposition, and as short-cuts to understanding where the lead’s mental health is at any given point) has never been recorded as exceeding 80 bpm. When – during the events of that scene – it does, it comes about purely as he is talking into a microphone. The other clear standout is Roy preparing to go into hibernation, and finding himself unable to, as his thoughts come to dominate him.
Ad Astra is not for everyone. Nor is it conventionally entertaining. It is character study, backed by a career-best performance from a leading man enjoying one of the best years of his career. It is almost certain that this film will benefit from time, and further consideration and study. Its reputation, however, may follow the style of its running time: that of a slow burn.