Ad Astra

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Ad Astra
"Gray's film is so visually stunning in places, you'll wish that Roy would pipe down a bit and let you enjoy it."

Space missions have been proving popular with A-listers lately, from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity to Matt Damon in The Martian and Ryan Gosling in First Man and now it's the turn of Brad Pitt to step up to the launchpad in James Gray's latest. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, he plays astronaut Roy McBride, a quiet and lonely soul - albeit one with a spectacularly wordy inner monologue that smears voice-over across almost every moment of this film.

Roy's pulse rate never goes above 80 beats a minute, even when plummeting to almost certain death, as he does in the first minutes here but he also, like so many loners before him, bears psychological scars from childhood. They come courtesy of dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who was also an astronaut and who took on a mission to far distant Neptune in search of intelligent life never to return. It doesn't take too much rummaging around in the emotional cliche drawer to discover that Clifford was distant even before the light years came between them.

All jokes about the state of intelligent life on our own planet in the current era aside, it's a typical set-up and it also comes as little surprise when Roy is told that daddy may not be as dead as previously thought and might, in fact, have gone rogue near the rim of the galaxy setting off reactions that are causing huge cosmic surges that threaten Earth. A plan is set to send Roy to the Moon in a bid to contact his dad before it's too late, a mission that itself becomes swallowed up by a greater one that is signposted from the start.

Gray's film is so visually stunning in places, you'll wish that Roy would pipe down a bit and let you enjoy it. As it is, the poor soul rumbles on about his daddy issues all the way to Neptune. Pitt's performance is full of subtle nuance - lovely moments, like a half-smile at a colleague or a look that shows his character has still retained a sense of wonder about the universe - but the same can't be said of the script he's been served up by Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross. They're so concerned with generating almost Shakespearean levels of inner angst that they fail to notice the poor bloke is drowning in platitudes - "I've been trained to compartmentalise", "I don't want to be like my dad".

The cameo work is also impressive, from Donald Sutherland's elderly adviser - a role that unfortunately makes very little sense at all - to Natasha Lyonne knocking it out of the park in just two minutes of screentime that also elicit one of those great half-smiles from Pitt. Ruth Negga as a brief ally is also good, although rather upstaged by bizarre set design involving a doll, a teddy and an empty birdcage.

When the action sequences come, they shift the film into an altogether better gear - particularly a Mad Max-style battle with a band of Moon pirates - but even they seem to be marked on the screenplay with metronomic regularity. It seems poor old Roy can't so much as make a trip to the shops without having it turn into some sort of battle, which would be fine in an all-out action film but never quite sits with the more contemplative head of steam Gray is trying to build up. The science aspect of all this is also very suspect, with one sequence feeling as though it has escaped from a boy's own comic. There's no point in aiming for profundity if you're going to let everything become silly elsewhere and without enough beef in the back story, the film is ultimately saved by Pitt's powerful performance. Gray is torn between the personal and the spectacular and never quite manages to square the circle.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2019
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Ad Astra packshot
An astronaut travels to the outer edge of the solar system in a bid to find his missing father and ensure the survival of the planet.
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Director: James Gray

Writer: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Starring: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Loren Dean, John Ortiz, Greg Bryk, Kimberly Elise, Anne McDaniels, Kimmy Shields, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, Alyson Reed, Halszka Kuza

Year: 2019

Runtime: 123 minutes

Country: Brazil, US, China

Festivals:

Venice 2019

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