Ad Astra is the 2019 sci-fi drama epic starring Brad Astra who is Sad Astra because he’s lost his Dad Astra who is lost ad astra. I don’t know if that’s the proper use of that term, but I’m just gonna hope that no one reading this learns Latin enough to prove me wrong. A lot of questions can be asked about this apparently controversial hard science fiction story, such as why did all the critics like it? Why don’t general audiences like it? Did this relatively low budget film pay off Rotten Tomatoes to get a high critic review despite the fact that that’s not how Rotten Tomatoes works? Golly, who knows?
The point is that this is a dense film with a lot of things to unpack. I don’t think it’s fair to rate it with a numerical value based on overall quality because that’s not how movies work. Taste is subjective, so why even bother? Because I can. As such, I’m going to review this film and all future films through four spectra: Story, Theme, Technical and Fun. This is so you can focus on whatever part is more important to you and hopefully make a good judgement on whether you’re going to like this film or not.
The story of Ad Astra is surprisingly very basic for such a hard sci-fi. Brad Pitt plays a cool, calm and collected astronaut with a overly sick name: Roy McBride. When a burst of energy from Neptune fries most of mankind's space instruments, Roy is hired by the government to find his long lost father who travelled to Neptune 30 years earlier to find life in space. The plot is essentially Roy going from A to B, stopping off and having non-sequitur adventures along the way, until he finally finds his father, who has been alone in space for thirty years, so how the hell do you think he’s doing?
The end result is kind of predictable due to the overarching themes being so overt, with the surprises being the aforementioned non-sequiturs (no one will ever claim that “Space Baboons” are predictable, but somehow, it does feel formulaic). The real hook is Roy’s emotional arc as he comes to realise the multiple secrets about his father.
Thematically the film is rich and vast; this is where the film really shines. This movie has a lot to say about it’s lack of faith in humanity; if you walked in thinking that we’re gonna be just fine, you’re gonna walk out thinking we really need to work on that. When I mentioned the story non-sequiturs, they are very much plot nonsense, but they are intrinsic to the themes. “Moon Pirates” are completely insane when you see them in the film and you’re just focusing on the plot, but when you stand back and look at what the film is saying, you’ll be writing essays on how “The Moon Pirates are Key to EVERYTHING!” And now for my next two thousand words on Moon Pirates.
My only complaint about this aspect of the film is that, like Zootopia before it, the movie is incredibly obvious about its message. After the twentieth time they mentioned God in the first thirty minutes, I started to wonder whether the movie would be about God. It was. Zootopia was a kids film though, so I gave it a little leeway; this is a science fiction film, it doesn’t need to hit me in the head so hard with its point. I say that, but some people still think that Starship Troopers is pro-war propaganda, so maybe people are just stupid.
There’s no poetic way to put: Ad Astra is gorgeous. The cinematography is beautiful with each planet looking unique in terms of colour and light. The sound is some of the best I’ve heard in years, with it fully engrossing you in the world. My one complaint is that I didn’t think to see it in Dolby Atmos. The production design effectively makes the world feel realistic and lived in. I’ve never personally been to the moon, but I don’t doubt there is a Starbucks there. The editing doesn’t feel clunky by any means, but you do feel the length of the movie. Each performance is pitch perfect with Brad Pitt’s stoic demeanour somehow giving you tons of subtext. The visual effects depicting the surprising variation in space are flawless with one exception: fake beard. You’ll know when you see it, but that’s all I’ll say. Fake beard.
On the other hand, nothing feels new. Everything you see here, you’ve probably seen before in some other sci-fi film. There’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in there, a dash of Gravity, a pinch of Interstellar, and just enough Pluto Nash for you to wonder if someone other than you has actually watched The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
Fun is a purely subjective matter, but I’m trying to make this objective. I do find delving into themes highly enjoyable, and I don’t doubt that when you read “Space Baboons” and “Moon Pirates” in passing, you probably had ideas of fun times ahead, but when it comes to excitement: the film is really lacking. I know that this is the point. Space travel is going to be slow. Checking in at the Moon space port and going through Moon customs is going to be boring. I get it. The moments of fun seem accidental at times. After a slow and contemplative scene steeped in symbolism, Roy happens to Mr Magoo his way into killing an entire crew. I laughed at every death and had some genuine fun, until two minutes later, Roy gets super lonely in deep space. Back to contemplative again. Was I wrong to laugh at those deaths?
The climax of the film is a clash of thematic contemplation and high-adrenalin action that sits together like milk and vinegar. At the very least, Geostorm didn’t have their characters freefall through an exploding space station while we all contemplate the meaning of life.