‘AD ASTRA’ ISN’T JUST BORING, IT’S VERY BORING
It’s deeply boring and it’s too bad.
Our ancestors were obsessed with aliens and their things. Stories about unidentified flying objects have been recounted and shared throughout history and all across the world. Descriptions and interpretations of these types of unexplained events have differed depending on the religion or country of the people sharing their stories, but the general consensus has been that humans have long believed and will continue to believe in life beyond Earth. That’s why films about the possibility of extraterrestrial life are so consuming and often breath taking. We’ve seen them done well, whether told through the perspective of young teenagers developing extraordinary abilities, a child finding a friend in an alien or scientists discovering our makers only to have that knowledge ripped away. However, what we haven’t seen, is a story that tells us how this search for the unknown affects families and destroys lives. “Ad Astra” attempted to fill that gap but did we really need it to?
This science fiction adventure stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, a decorated astronaut and son of awarded astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). In this reality, the solar system is struck by intense bursts of energy that block out power systems and threaten humanity. As thousands have died, McBride is commissioned by the U.S Space command to be part of a confidential mission to connect with his father who they believe is still alive (after a determination that he was dead from a mission that went wrong 30 years before.) His father was on a research expedition called the “Lima Project” and the objective was to find intelligent life in the solar system. But new information sourced from the Lima aircraft led the U.S. space command to believe that McBride was still alive and somehow connected to the surges. Roy is needed because he is the only key to finding his father and potentially solving the issue of the surge.
In “Ad Astra,” McBride is known as a calm and effective astronaut which is necessary because his job requires him to remain cool so that he can act rationally in heated emergency situations. The space organization counts on this coolness for connecting with his dad. However, they planned to remove him from the assignment afterwards since they wanted to eliminate his father who they think is a threat due to troubling behaviour that was hidden to protect the image of the organization. Years ago when the astronauts involved in the “Lima Project” had journeyed for a while and managed to reach Neptune, some of the astronauts wanted to return home but instead of letting them go back, Clifford decided to get rid of them. Learning this, Roy finally allowed himself to feel something beyond his dull routines.
Roy restrains his feelings a lot; he barely reacted when he was told that his father was still alive, so it almost came as a shock when he decided to intervene. I mean it took over an hour for the action to begin and when it did, it was mediocre. In the beginning of “Ad Astra,” he just kept on narrating about how great he is at controlling himself and acting happy when he really felt dead inside. That feeling translates to the viewer. The special things about movies is how great they are at making you feel like you have been captured into the world you’re watching, so if Roy is monotone, lowered and generally depressive, it’s natural for viewers to also feel an approximation of those feelings. It’s why his distress when discovering that his father had lost a lot of his sensibility and rationality was so sad to watch. But is that enough?
When people think of sci-fi they think of a dramatic, thrilling story about aliens and their oddities because the possibility of other life is an emotional and fantastical dream. They want to see a moving and philosophical story about how the discovery of aliens intersects with humanity and the prospect of a future with improved technology. Better yet, they want to see how the search for this dream is effortful and gut wrenching to attain, not a muted story about an astronaut who doesn’t want to feel anything and to no purpose.
What was most confounding was the way that Roy spoke to his dad and his dad to him. For someone who is supposed to be very emotional about seeing his dad, when they finally meet, he spoke so formally and rigidly at first, that it was interesting to learn that the film is intended to be a heart-warming story about the love between a father and son. This weird line of speaking wasn’t exclusive to just Roy; almost everyone spoke and acted strangely. General Rivas (John Ortiz) kept smiling weirdly at Roy while revealing the news to him about his dad which really didn’t match the tone of the situation or the behaviour of his peers. It was also peculiar that they kept asking about his emotional state so frequently and had people observing him during their meeting. Isn’t he allowed to feel something? What was the purpose of have having this restriction on his emotions? It really didn’t add to the story.
Then there’s the question of why Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) bothered to give the speech about how Roy’s father killed her parents if she planned on helping him. What was her motivation? The dissonance created because of the message of the speech and her action following it, was extremely dumbfounding. Roy didn’t even have to beg for her help, she just willingly offered to help a random stranger to do something illegal and dangerous despite herself. More, there’s the question of why it’s OK for Roy to just murder people. Aren’t crimes committed in space still crimes? The writers just glossed over the murder of three characters as if it wasn’t important or memorable.
“Ad Astra” isn’t bad, it just isn’t good. Critics will say it’s smart maybe because it’s directed by James Gray or good primarily because Brad Pitt is in it but don’t waste your time. We can discuss how great the cinematography was, how silence was used and how they addressed isolation in space but the point is, the movie was disappointing even with such a rich cast. The film felt like it was trying to mimic the success of Sandra Bullock’s Gravity but failed. Luckily for them, the movie’s poster and trailer are enticing so people might be seduced into watching but you need more than a star cast to deliver a moving story about the most unimaginable thing that could ever be discovered.