Sunday, December 15, 2019

"Ad Astra": two-paragraph review

An accomplished, preternaturally phlegmatic astronaut in his fifties finds out his septuagenarian dad might still be alive and orbiting Neptune. That's the premise for 2019's "Ad Astra" (literally, "to the stars"), which is directed by James Gray and stars Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride, with Tommy Lee Jones as father and dedicated alien-hunter Clifford McBride. Most of the focus is on Roy, whose commitment to his job and overly calm demeanor have cost him his loving wife Eve (Liv Tyler). Roy's journey takes him from Earth to the moon, then onward to Mars, and eventually to Neptune, where his father was last reported to have been 26 years earlier, overseeing a SETI effort called the Lima Project. Roy has gotten word that his father, deemed missing all these years, might still be alive, and that a series of antimatter-driven power surges coming from Neptune has the potential to destroy human life by disrupting all electrical activity. Roy is tasked with going to Mars to broadcast a message to his father, a man who had fanatically dedicated himself to the search for alien life. When Roy's broadcast produces what seems to be a response, Roy is cut out of the next phase of the mission, which is to destroy the Lima project with a nuke. Roy manages to get aboard the rocket heading to Neptune, and the rest of the movie is about the long trip to the eighth planet, the possibility of Roy's meeting his father again, the question of alien life, and whether to blow up the Lima Project to save Earth.

Brad Pitt plays the über-calm Roy with great subtlety. Roy has to prove his stability many times during the film by taking periodic psych evals that, when he passes them, allow him to proceed to the next phase in his mission. These evals reminded me of the harsh interrogations undergone by Agent K in "Blade Runner 2049." The movie struck me as an uneven mix of "Interstellar," "Gravity," and possibly "Solaris," which I haven't seen but have heard about. The story has the trappings of an odyssey, given that it's a couple days to the moon, nineteen days to Mars, and seventy-nine days out to Neptune. The emotional scope of the story, by contrast, is quite limited. Roy deals with feelings of loneliness and rage as he endures the long solitude of his voyage and tries to cope with the inner demons resulting from a turbulent relationship with his father. One of the big questions for me was how the movie would deal with the prospect of alien life, and I ended up feeling that the film very much dropped the ball in this respect. The drama had the chance to be grandiose and cosmic in scale, but in the end, it was mostly about daddy issues and (literally) letting go. I'm not convinced that the movie's conclusion provided much of a payoff, given all the buildup. "Ad Astra" isn't a film I'm in any hurry to rewatch; it's slow and somewhat dull, with a very simple, linear plot and a mundane ending that stands in sad contrast to the cosmic vistas laid out before us.


John Mac said...

Well, you finally reviewed something I've actually seen! All the more surprising because I almost never watch movies or TV. I only watched Ad Astra because I was stuck in an airplane seat for four hours on my return home from Korea.

Like you, I found the movie pretty disappointing. You don't mention it but the fact that he killed the crew of the spaceship going to Neptune (like father, like son, eh?) seemed pretty huge, but apparently was forgotten/forgiven when he returned to Earth. Oh well, collateral damage I suppose.

And maybe it is just because I'm dense but I didn't get the origins of that anti-matter generation. Was that something Roy's father was doing intentionally? Was it aliens? My impression at the end was that Roy had concluded aliens don't exist.

And geez, riding the shock waves from a nuclear explosion in space to propel Roy's ship back home seemed pretty contrived to me.

Maybe I'm too old to enjoy movies these days. My attention span is better suited to television episodes.

Kevin Kim said...

I was trying to avoid spoilers, but since you mention those points, I'd agree that those are my complaints, too. Roy notes, in his log, that history will have to judge his actions, but the timing of the movie's finale is unclear. It could be that the movie skips over a lengthy trial and exoneration in order to fast-forward us to Roy's reunion with his wife. I dunno.

I wasn't too clear on the antimatter surges, either. It also seemed rather implausible that such surges would retain much force after traveling all the way from Neptune to Earth. There were, in fact, a lot of science-related implausibilities that had me scratching my head, chief among them being the way that Roy's shuttle starts drifting away from the Lima Project after the shuttle fails to dock. If the shuttle has the same relative motion as the Lima station, then it ought to float in place just fine. (This is the same Newtonian problem we have in "Gravity," when George Clooney's character inexplicably starts to drift away from Sandra Bullock.)

And the Lima station had 26 years' worth of food on board? Maybe dear old Dad was living off the corpses of his crewmates.

Couldn't help thinking that Tommy Lee Jones's sendoff in this movie was similar to his character's sendoff in "Space Cowboys" (which also had Donald Sutherland in it).