This has the marks of a movie that should have been an independent production but needed studio money to make. Most of the independent streak of its director, James Gray, is intact, but there seems to be a compromise. I think that mainly manifests in the movie’s length. It’s a two-hour film that feels like it should be at least two and a half, if not three hours long. Scenes move too quickly, never really luxuriating in the details like the scenes often feel like they should be in order to enhance the experience. Instead, it skips through these little moments too quickly, getting every moment into the film even if they feel underserved.
Even without reading James Gray’s own take on his movie, it seemed obvious that the two largest influences to Ad Astra were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. 2001 is the most obvious considering the new film’s setting, but Apocalypse Now is probably the most pertinent. The new added wrinkle is the personal connection that exists between Roy McBride and the object of his search, his father Clifford McBride. Gray makes the story one about a son learning who he is in relation to his father and getting confronted with the choice of either being like his father or becoming someone else.
A shock wave ripped through the solar system, emanating from Neptune, the furthest planet (Pluto be damned, I guess) which was the ultimate destination of Clifford McBride, a legendary astronaut sent out to search for alien intelligence free from the interference from the sun. Contact with McBride had broken sixteen years into his mission, roughly ten years before the start of the movie, so there are assumptions that Clifford is behind the shock waves that are knocking out electronics, and the space administration secretly sends Roy to Mars to speak to Clifford through a communication channel that wasn’t hurt by the wave.
What ends up driving the plot forward is Roy’s sense of isolation, a trait that he ends up sharing with his father. The movie actually starts with Roy giving a psychological profile (a common occurrence through the first half of the film) where he describes his mental state. The profiles aren’t important for showing Roy’s personal feelings at the time (he lies through most of them and the program seems to accept the lies even if it probably knows that they are lies) but the first one in particular shows Roy’s worldview. His complete dedication to the mission, to his job, intercut with flashes of his ex-wife (played by Liv Tyler) walking out on him end up mirroring with Clifford’s late admonition where he says that he never loved Roy or his mother. All that mattered to both Clifford and Roy was the job, and Roy ends up following in Clifford’s exact footsteps as he goes from Mars to Neptune. It’s there, confronted with his father for the first time in decades, that Roy finally sees that he’s becoming the man who abandoned him, and he has to make a choice about who he will be.
The movie is in the tradition of some of the best science fiction, using the rather grounded science to tell a human story, but as I said before, I think it moves too quickly. There’s obviously a desire on the part of the film and filmmakers to instill a sense of awe, especially late in the film when Roy reaches Neptune. The sights are truly great, but there isn’t enough time to let them wash over the audience, limiting their impact. I think, in terms of visual grandeur, the best recent example was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and it’s extended creation of the cosmos segment that did allow those images to linger, accumulating power as they stayed on screen long enough for the audience to really appreciate things like scale and scope.
Another smaller thing about the film is that its episodic structure kind of grates. It’s natural for a “there and back again” story to have episodes along the way, and Ad Astra doesn’t fall into the trap of having events just to have events, but they stand out more than I think they should. I keep going back to the distress call on the way to Mars where the ship stops to help a vessel adrift to find a pair of raging apes who had killed the Norwegian craft’s crew. It does have a point about isolation in space and changes the dynamics of the crew so that later events can transpire, so it’s far from just an isolated incident that could be cut. However, I think it stands out a bit more than it should, robbing the film of a certain flow. It also feels like a certain concession to financiers to introduce an element of danger at a certain slower point in the film even if it wasn’t really called for.
Still, despite some rather obvious concessions to money men, I feel like Ad Astra is a worthwhile entry into the more serious science fiction genre. It’s well made, often looks strikingly good, is well acted, especially by Brad Pitt, and intelligent. I wish it could have been a purer film with more time to tell the story at its core and more time to let the audience feel the same sense of awe that should be affecting the characters, but that’s not to be.