WARNING – SPOILER ALERT – do not read on if you think plot reveals may harm your viewing of this film!
Review by Tim Robins
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones (Clifford McBride), Donald Sutherland
The Film: Thirty years ago, Clifford McBride led a voyage into deep space, but the ship and crew were never heard from again. Now his son – a fearless astronaut – must embark on a daring mission to Neptune to uncover the truth about his missing father and a mysterious power surge that threatens the stability of the universe…
The Review: I confess that I went to see Ad Astra because of the rave reviews on the posters, so I suppose my decision was written in the star ratings. Stand alone science fiction movies with serious intent have been an engaging feature of the cinema mainstream in recent years. Oblivion, Interstellar and Arrival have all staked a claim to use the genre to explore profound questions about the human and inhuman conditions. But Ad Astra is just trite and banal. It is not that the film is bad science fiction; it is belligerently anti everything science fiction stands for.
Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut with the reputation for maintaining a steady pulse rate even in the most dire circumstances whether it be plummeting to Earth from a power rig that stretches beyond the planet’s exosphere, or fighting off the unwanted advances of a space baboon. There’s only one thing that makes McBride all wibbly wobbly -and that’s the prospect of meeting his Dad, played by Tommy Lee Jones who has gone AWOL on a mission to find alien life that only got as far as Neptune.
Is Dad alive or dead? Did he find alien life in the depths of space? And is he or aliens behind blasts of dark matter destroying Earth’s power grid and threatening the human race with extinction? Answers to these and many other questions come after Roy launches himself from Mars towards the source of the energy, but only after reluctantly killing a few people and a space baboon along the way.
One of Hollywood’s more tiresome tropes is that any voyage into deep space must become an often time bending quest to find oneself. Here, only very late in the day, we get flashbacks to childhood that begin to plague Roy as he approaches his Dad’s supposed location. This character, motivation and relationship building comes too late in the day but provides Pitt with the opportunity to act.
We get to see every twitch of Roy’s self realisation, every gurn of trepidation at his approach to Neptune, every tremble of his bottom lip at the impending father and son reunion. And Pitt is great at involving us in what becomes a one man show. There were times where I genuinely felt that I was trapped with Roy, all alone in the cinema for all eternity without even an enraged baboon for company.
The father and son relationship is not the most tiresome aspect of the film, neither is it a particularly original contribution to cinema story telling. Hollywood is obsessed with father’s and their sons and takes any available opportunity to rework Oedipal conflicts that are presumed to be a universal characteristic that structures men’s relationship to their Dads.
But those critics who see Ad Astra as a Freudian drama in space have missed the way the film moves from psychodynamic analysis of the psyche to the current fashion for “mindfulness”, a kind of secular Buddhism that believes happiness is to be found in the self reflexive observation of bodily states in the here and now. Or, as Ad Astra has it, forget seeking alien life, the truly alien is our alienated relationship to ourselves and others, including baboons.
There is a method used in Mindfulness Training which encourages a student to hold a single raisin between their figures and focus on its texture. So, we end with Roy realising the meaning of life is to be found in focussing on his coffee cup. Yes all the, brief, scenes of warring moon rovers, ham fisted conspiracies and a homicidal baboon have come to this; learning to appreciate a really well made cup of coffee.
I left the cinema feeling gloomy and alone, trapped in a Hollywood shaped here and now with no motive or energy to look to the future let alone the skies. Ad Astra is full of stars (including Donald Sutherland) but they only bring you back down to Earth.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’