Ad Astra (2019)

dir. James Gray

2/5

I've been posting a lot of movie reviews lately, and I was going to stop posting movie reviews because I want this to be a Tech Blog and not a Movie Reviews Blog.

But I have to write about Ad Astra. It's a bad movie, and no one else seems to think so. I don't understand it.

First of all, the movie is maybe 70% exposition. And I'm not just talking about exposition by title cards, though the movie has that; and I'm not just talking about exposition by narration, although the movie has that too, in spades. But almost every character, including Brad Pitt, spends the first half of the movie just wandering around saying things like, "My father, he most decorated astronaut in the history of the program. US Air Force Academy, his doctorate at MIT..." To say nothing of the continual psych evals that Brad Pitt has to take, so that he can look into the camera and tell us how he's feeling.

Speaking of the psych evals! The fact that Brad Pitt just moans and moans about how he's feeling fine, and then the robot is like, "Well, you sound totally good, psych eval passed," highlights how blatant the holes are in the reality of this film. And it's not just the psych evals. It's the way that half of our astronauts are all in their 50s and up. It's the way that everyone crucial to finding the Lima Project is also severely emotionally compromised by the Lima Project. It's the way the military rocket decides to stop en route to help a stranded Norwegian science spaceship. Do you think the Navy would put aside their military exercises to help a sinking ship? A little after this, one of the astronauts gets mauled by a crazed ape, and they just bring the astronaut back into their ship. Is this the same space program that stopped Ken Mattingly from riding Apollo 13 because he hadn't had the measles vaccine? Later on in the film, Brad Pitt has a knife fight with a bunch of astronauts during takeoff. They're all weightless for some reason while the rocket is accelerating through the martian atmosphere. One of the guys fires a gun inside the ship and releases some toxic gas, I don't know. I don't get it.

The weirdest part is that someone did clearly put some thought into this film. When Brad Pitt arrives on Mars, you can briefly see a sign in the background trying to warn against suicide--as if someone had gotten so sick of life on Mars that they wanted to end it all by going outside. Someone noticed and put the effort into the details. And then they're like, "Look, we did a news:"

Not enough chyrons on this news.
Not enough chyrons on this news.

The characters are, without exception, 1-dimensional. I don't believe in Brad Pitt's character's, like, internal agony. He has no reason to feel the way he does. Or not feel the way he does. We're just told that he doesn't feel. We're told that TLJ has gone crazy. We're told that he has some ambiguous relationship with his father; his father likes musicals or something. That's their relationship. We need some flashbacks here. We need some more Tommy Lee Jones in the movie. He's got two speaking lines and then we meet him and he's loopy and doesn't say much. And then he kills himself for no reason.

This film wants to be Interstellar but it's taking all of its cues from Armageddon. In Armageddon I didn't care that they brough a Glock to space, because the movie wasn't meant to be a space movie: it was a disaster movie, which happened to take place in space. Space was incidental. But then this movie starts bringing up the Drake Equation and they put Brad Pitt in an anechoic chamber and you're like, "Well well well this must be a Science Movie," and then Brad Pitt climbs up the side of a rocket during liftoff and then the crew of that rocket immediately unbuckle and start firing guns.

To say nothing of the multitude of visual homages that director James Gray is trying to pull off here. Off the top of my head: 2001: A Space Odyssey keeps popping up whenever people are moving around in spaceships; Interstellar is referenced in all of the lens flares; Gravity when the two guys are tethered together while flying through space; The Martian when Pitt does some sort of self-surgery on his obliques; Sunshine when they use long red-tinted cuts and then long blue-tinted cuts. All of which just makes you think of the better movies you could be watching than this.

When Brad Pitt finds Tommy Lee Jones, it occurred to me that I don't actually know what either of these characters want. TLJ wants to find aliens, but it sounds like he wants to find little green men with laser guns and flying cars. "No sign of consciousness." I'm not sure what Pitt wants. To bring his father back to earth, I guess? But then what? Pitt clearly finds no fun with anyone on Earth. And it's not like we've had any backstory where he feels like he misses his father, like he wants to see him again. I don't believe in that.

Something else I didn't like but couldn't find a spot for

This movie has a weird prejudice against screens. Every interface is a vocal interface. There's always someone talking in the background, talking through a speaker, speaking some content that belongs in text, on a screen. Things like "Approaching Neptune," or "Please enter your access code." I think if I was trying to be generous, I'd say that maybe they're trying to show us how people are disconnected from each other, that we can only communicate with other people through machines. (Maybe that'd explain why Brad Pitt is so upset throughout the movie.) But comes across as clunky and ham-fisted, since 9 out of 10 times, the content would be served through a screen in regular old 2020. When you turn on your computer, it doesn't say, "Please enter your password." And then you certainly don't have to say your password out loud, so the whole room can hear.

Brad Pitt's story arc

  1. Depressed anhedonic weirdo
  2. Depressed anhedonic space pirate
  3. Find dad
  4. Dad kills self
  5. ???
  6. "I am active and engaged. I will live, and love."

The credits

This movie has too many bloody producers.

The reviews

Somehow this movie has top-score reviews from lots of people who seem to know what they're talking about. I don't get it. The film was bereft of scientific accuracy; there was no character to speak of, from any of the people who walked around on screen; the story was patchwork; Pitt and TLJ seemed to be emotionally checked-out. I don't know what to say. I don't know how Richard Roeper can give this film 3.5/4 stars.

Stray observations

  • Having a special code that opens any spaceship (like the one they used when attending the stranded space monkey ship) seems like a bad idea in a world with space pirates.
  • These "comfort rooms" appear to be anything but. I like how they put Pitt in time out there when he finally fails a psych eval.
  • The patch on Brad Pitt's shoulder is so abnormally large.
  • Before the spaceship takes off from Mars, they say that they're planning a launch at 7:52 UTC. Why the heck are they using UTC on Mars? Use Mars time! Wouldn't 7:52 UTC on Mars be a different time of day, every day?
  • The way that the lady was like, "Do you want a hot towel? I really appreciate you flying with us, thank you so much for flying with us," really makes me want to fly Virgin Atlantic.
  • Wait--Virgin Atlantic? Virgin has a spaceship company! Why are they flying Virgin Atlantic.