James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13
“Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*
Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and
NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.
Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.
While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.
But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.
On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.
Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.
Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.
Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.
* I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^