Ad Astra (2019)

I was genuinely curious about this one when it hit cinemas last fall, but my enthusiasm wasn’t as such to compel me to make the trip to the theatre at the time. Having just caught up with it, thanks to Crave, I can honestly say that I’m seriously kicking myself in the ass for not having made the effort, as this film would’ve been spectacular to behold on The Big Screen.

Ad Astra (meaning ‘to the stars’ in Latin) follows an accomplished astronaut named ‘Roy’ (Brad Pitt) who, after a near fatal accident in orbit due the passing of a mysterious energy burst, is recruited for a Top Secret mission to the outer reaches of our solar system. It seems that his father ‘Clifford’ (Tommy Lee Jones) was part of a historic space mission to Neptune and was believed long lost in space, most likely deceased (Hmmm…shades of Event Horizon (1997)? Or even The Black Hole (1979)?). It’s revealed that evidence suggests that he may still be alive…and, in true mad scientist fashion, may also be responsible for the deadly energy bursts that threaten “total catastrophe”. ‘Roy’ is brought to Mars in order to send a message to his father to implore him to stop the bursts. Things go wrong and ‘Roy’ is forced to re-evaluate his mission and his feelings, after having stowed away on a ship on a Search and Destroy bound for Neptune; the source of the bursts and the possible hiding location for his mysterious, and quite possibly dangerous, father.

As is my way, I grabbed my notepad and got scribbling as the story unspooled.

Here lie those notes…

Interesting. The expected 20th Century Fox fanfare is missing. 9 times out of 10, the Fox logo is accompanied by their instantly recognizable orchestral signature. Not here. Just silence, which I’m sure is to reflect the lack of sound in outer space.

Wow! Intense opening scene. Fall from space. Yep, the first scene is a doozy. We follow ‘Roy’ through an elaborate air lock in POV and out onto a gantry, which happens to overlook the Earth in a spectacular vista from a miles-high tower that extends into orbit. When the first energy burst hits, all manner of chaos ensues and ‘Roy’ is thrown from the service ladder he’s using to fix a faulty robot arm. His fall would’ve been dizzying to see in a theatre, a total burst of adrenaline! *sighs in resignation*

Tommy Lee Jones. As haggard as ever. I don’t think Jones has ever been accused of being a handsome man, but damn he’s showing the years here. He is definitely ‘getting on’. Just a shallow observation.

Sutherland! Good cast so far. I’ve always had a fondness for fellow Canadian Donald Sutherland (and his talented son, Kiefer), going back to the first film I remember seeing him in, 1981’s underrated Eye of the Needle, in which he played a lethally efficient Nazi spy who threatened to reveal a crucial real-life secret of the Allies during WW2. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed every role I’ve ever seen him in, regardless of the actual film’s quality. His role is brief, but stands out…at least to me.

Some gorgeous cinematography. This film looks amazing! I’ve already alluded to it and I guarantee it will get mentioned again, before this review is over. There are numerous ‘long’ shots that just let the spectacular space (or lunar / Martian) action play out. It’s not cut to shit into some frenzied Michael Bay-ish mess. The grandeur of the cosmic visuals is communicated beautifully and I was enthralled at 7am taking it in.

Still not sure about ‘Roy’. Strangely flat and robotic…so far. While a reason is clearly conveyed later in the film, it was NEARLY distracting, how seemingly monotone and detached ‘Roy’ was. I think a wee bit more ‘humanity’ in the first Act would’ve lent credence and stakes to the ‘darkness’ the plagues him internally as the story unfolds.

Love the little ‘real world’ details. Moon arrival. On one hand, I hate Product Placement. I’ve seen many instances that I deem insulting and obvious over the years. But, on the other hand, I also think that seeing logos and products that we readily identify with in our own lives helps lend a tangibility to the universe onscreen, a plausible extrapolation of the world we inhabit today. Seeing the realistic Arrivals terminal on the Moon and noticing a DHL kiosk in the background prompted this scribble.

Lunar rover chase! Awesome! Fury Road on the Moon! Yea, this scene was cool and genuinely exciting. Taking the notion of the lunar surface being an Old West style frontier, with competing companies and countries clashing over territory rights, we follow a convoy of three rovers booking it through hostile territory on the way to a secure launch facility, only to be set upon by rival rovers with hostile intent. The way it was shot, captured and rendered was slick and awe-inspiring, and reminded me of the way that cinematic genius George Miller (co-writer / director of the entire Mad Max franchiseand Happy Feet) shot and edited the timeless action classic that is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). That will never be a bad thing.

Something ‘Terrence Malick-y’ about certain elements. The Thin Red Line. Narration and pacing. Some people love veteran, abstract director Terrence Malick’s story telling style. Full Disclosure – I’ve only seen two of Malick’s films, Badlands (1971) and The Thin Red Line (1998), and Red Line is the one that prompted this observation. Brad Pitt narrates Ad Astra as ‘Roy’ and sometimes goes off in pseudo-deep musings, much like the WW2 characters did ad nauseum in that pretentious slog of a war film. It didn’t take long to make the comparison. The slower pace at times also helped reinforce this impression.

Woah! Fucking crazed space baboon! I’d heard about this sequence when Ad Astra first hit theatres and I was curious to see how that would play out without being silly. Oh, there is NO silliness happening here! This sequence is goddamn nightmare fuel and was handled very effectively, for maximum ‘creep’ factor. Never seen anything like this sequence before and I found it refreshing…and horrific.

Some pacing reminiscent of 2001 or Solaris. Anyone out there familiar with either flick (Russian or US remake, for Solaris (1972 / 2002)), will see the slow, at times patient, at times plodding, pacing as a stylistic connection between the two. Some of the same patient / dragging pace (depending on your preferences) is employed here, just luckily not to the point where it outstays it’s welcome, as it does in those other, earlier titles.

Shades of Apocalypse Now. Or should I say ‘shades of Joseph Conrad’s infamous novella Heart of Darkness (written 1899), on which Francis Ford Coppola’s fantastic 1979 Vietnam War drama was based. Ad Astra clearly follows a similar concept of someone being sent to find and deal with a former ally, who has gone rogue and is now a threat…with extreme prejudice.

Eerie underwater scene. I did not expect to have a harrowing underwater sequence turn up in a movie that takes place in outer space for 90% of it’s 2-hour run-time. But there it was! ‘Roy’ is forced to navigate through what seemed to be a water-filled cooling tunnel at a Martian launch facility, in order to get to a ship in the final stages of launch countdown, and it’s creepy, all dark and murky.

Crazy zero-G fight! There’s a fight in zero gravity in this movie that’s crazy! That is all.

‘Obsession’ is a key theme, along with the dangers of it. Isolation also. Obsession, to a fatalistic degree, pushes some of our main characters, most notably ‘Roy’ and ‘Clifford’. There is also an observation about the need for human contact and how fragile we humans truly are, both physically and mentally. There’s also a profound spiritual aspect to this as well, or so I thought.

Not for everyone…but definitely for ME! No, it’s true. I liked it. A lot.

And thus ends my notes on Ad Astra.

Sitting down at 6:30 am with a small cauldron of coffee, while my fiance’ slumbered away, and hitting Play on this Recently Added title on Crave was a nice start to my Saturday. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ad Astra but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s a fantastic-looking film, in which it’s plain to see just how much work went into its impressively detailed Production. It has a solid cast, though some are no more than cameos (Natasha Lyonne and Rose Negga leap to mind, among others). Once I understood what they were going for, Brad Pitt’s somewhat stilted and ‘distant’ portrayal of ‘Roy’ worked, but for the first while, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a lack of directorial imagination or if the character had been written that way. So, aside from looking beautiful and boasting an appealing cast, it’s also nicely paced (I found), with some impressively believable world-building and imaginative concepts to help flesh out the space-faring aspects. The Production Design is virtually flawless and the less-is-more Score worked precisely when it needed to, while letting the narrative speak for itself without the guidance of emotionally-manipulative music.

If I have to dredge up some Negatives, I can say that the story does conveniently gloss over some aspects (passage of time, hygiene, dangers of space travel etc), leaving some moments that felt like they had skipped over some key material (which may have hit the Cutting Room floor), so a few transitions felt abrupt or lazy. I would also have to point out a lack of charisma to Brad Pitt’s most-likely-deliberate performance…which is baffling, as the dude has charisma to burn! So that may have the potential to turn some viewers off, I’d think.

But these minor nit-picks are definitely NOT deal breakers.

If you’re a fan of sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Solaris (2002), Sunshine (2007) or Gravity (2013), then I think Ad Astra will be right up your alley. But I can also recommend this one to science fiction fans in general, as even if the pace or characters don’t work for you for some reason, the attention to detail and the grandeur of the space sequences is well worth the price of admission. I was very impressed with Ad Astra and can definitely see myself revisiting it again in the near future, to catch all the little sexy details I may have overlooked the first time.


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