‘Ad Astra’ Reaches for the Stars, Nearly Soars

ad astraAnd with Brad Pitt following Matt Damon and George Clooney, the “Ocean’s 11” space drama trilogy is complete.

“Ad Astra” follows an astronaut who is sent on a top-secret mission to Neptune in order to see if his long-lost scientist father is still alive. Brad Pitt stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland, as James Gray directs and co-writes.

In recent years we have been treated to some great outer space cinema, with game-changers like “Interstellar” and “Gravity,” as well as last year’s Neil Armstrong biopic, “First Man” (“The Martian” also came out, but we can move on). This latest installment into the genre is much more of a slow character study than an action-packed thrill ride, and for the most part this indie film with a $100 million paint job works.

Brad Pitt has always been somewhat underrated as an actor, just because he is such a big movie star people don’t give him enough credit for his craft. Everyone is gushing over his work in this year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (I don’t understand the hype, but then again I remember very little of that not-good film). Here he does little actual talking, and takes a page right out of the Ryan Gosling school of minimalist acting. Pitt essentially is a Neil Armstrong type-character, or at least the way Gosling portrayed him, choosing eye movements and subtle head nods over actual dialogue; it is mournful, and sad, and calculated, and great. There is one scene in-particular that had Pitt displaying a full range of emotion without saying a single word and while I’m sure if his name is read Oscar nominee morning it’ll be for “Hollywood,” in my mind it will be justice for his work here.

The film looks simply stunning, with director James Gray surely putting much of the film’s (somewhat lofty) budget towards the special effects and production design. There are shots of planets and vast open space that will take your breath away, and while there is nothing as awe-inspiring as the opening long take in “Gravity,” this, when partnered with the hypnotic score by Max Richter, is an immersive experience.

Now, the film is certainly slow and will surely turn off casual filmgoers who think they’re in for a two-hour Brad Pitt space action adventure. For me, slowburns are always hit-or-miss, with some being great (“Foxcatcher,” “Call Me By Your Name”) and some being blah (“Blade Runner 2049”). For the longest time, I was digging the pacing because it draws you in all-the-more, and I can still feel that swaying and luring feeling that films like this, “Roma” or “Taxi Driver” give off.

That being said, the film has some flaws. I wasn’t crazy about the way it wrapped up, for several reasons actually, and ever since the trailer I wondered what the rules are in this near-future universe seeing as Brad Pitt hurdled from space but somehow survived landing on Earth. The rules are never explained, plenty of times characters survive massive falls, and for a film that is being toted by both NASA officials and the director as “the most accurate depiction of space travel ever put to screen,” I would think the concept of burning up upon re-entry would have been taken into consideration.

There is also one scene that in a different movie would be entertaining and maybe even funny, but here it felt out-of-place and, again, unrealistic, and it drew me out of the film for a second (but then the score eventually lulled me back in).

For the first half of “Ad Astra” I really thought I was watching one of 2019’s best films, but the way it decided to end left me a bit betrayed by all it was setting up. I’ll need some time to process this one, maybe it will still be contender for the back-end of the list come December, but I think you should give this one a shot. If you go in knowing it is slower and not a space “Fast & Furious” popcorn flick, then I think there are rewards worth unearthing.

Critic’s Rating: 7/10

credit: Twentieth Century Fox
20th Century Fox

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