Paulie’s Perspective: Ad Astra Revisited

Dir: James Gray

Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland.

Released Sept 20, 2019 and now making the rounds on digital platforms and cable – I decided to revisit this movie starring Brad Pitt because it really underachieved at the box office and no one really knew what was going on.

After seeing it again, I still really don’t know what is going on. 

The film tanked at the box office. Costing $90 million to make and bringing in only $50 million in the USA – it was saved however, overseas. By the end of its international run, it had raked in just over $132.8 million globally. 

Brad Pitt plays an astronaut named Roy McBride, whose father, Cliff McBride was in charge of a mission to search for life beyond Earth. Intelligent or otherwise, the movie doesn’t really specify, which really is consistent with one of the huge faults of this film. All the science is just put to the wayside, I’m guessing to make way to focus on the relationship between father and son. 

Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones) McBride’s vessel is named Lima Project, and we know it went as far as Neptune before encountering some difficulties. One of those difficulties is a damaged antimatter battery which is sending powerful, destructive surges throughout the galaxy, even reaching Earth. Putting us and the planets around it in great danger, SpaceCom must send someone to retrieve it, fix it, or blow it up. I believe they choose the latter. First however, they must find it and find out if Cliff is still alive.

The best way to do that is to grab his son, Roy, (Brad Pitt) and start sending communications. Roy is sent to the Moon first, then to Mars, for the clearest communication possible. 

This film is not so much about space travel as it is about father and son. Big problem is, the father has gone crazy, and the son is so reserved and detached from life that his pulse never goes above 80 bpm. So the main object is to get these two together, but one has been in space so long he has gone mad, and the other is already detached from life that he never gets excited, passionate, mad or anything. That’s a tall order, and the film kind of sabotages itself. 

Besides technical glitches, like a vessel traveling 2 billion miles back to Earth from Neptune and Brad Pitt has no stasis chamber or meals or water or anything but a little stubble of a beard is kind of crazy. The journey should take 12 years, but somehow Brad does it in a matter of days. How? Who knows. 

Little problems like that are all over this film, because James Gray was trying to walk the two lines of science fiction and father/son redemption. Does Roy find his Dad? Sure, does it matter? Nope. Cliff never calls him son, he tells him he never loved him or his mother and then kills himself. I think that’s maybe when Roy’s pulse goes over 80bpm. 

The thing that is impressive here is the pacing and the set designs. The ships are beautiful, the planets look amazing, and they have “comfort rooms” that project soothing images like ocean waves and flying geese on all four walls. 

The pace is slow, like Kubrick, but the material is no where near as profound. Cliff was sent to look for life, found nothing, and thought himself a failure for coming up empty in space for 30 years. No supreme being, no non-intelligent life, nothing. Up comes “I feel nothing” Roy, and he just calmly kills a crew (all by accident) trying to get on the vessel that is going to see his father. 

There is no real connection with anything here. We don’t get a science connection, we don’t get a family connection, we don’t get a God connection and we don’t get a film about outer space connection. 

Mr Gray has been at this since 1994. He has been writing and directing, with no great success, yet no great failures, which is kind of exactly how this film feels. Ad Astra is not based on a book or a comic, it was completely thought up by Mr. Gray and tv writer Ethan Gross. 

Good parts of this movie is that it does have a beginning, middle and end, and the look of this film is superb. If you’re looking for Planet of the Apes or 2001 though, keep on looking. There is nothing even close to thought provoking here. Even father and son can not hug it out after 30 years of being apart. One thinks his 30 years of service was a total disaster, the other is locked away in his own head and can’t show emotions very well. 

Oh and Liv Tyler is here, but only for a very short amount time and her presence is meaningless. I guess she just wanted to see Brad Pitt up close.  

Thanks for reading – catch me every Thursday right here. 

Author: Paul Bernardo